Next stop Broadway?

Playwrights showcase their innovative and lively new works at the venerable Humana Festival before they arrive in theaters around the country.

A whirlwind weekend of theater. You could get lost in it. But each play remains distinctive.

The Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.) has been stocking the stages of regional theaters and Broadway for 25 years with vital new works. Many plays of this 2001 season will find their way onto stages across the United States and in New York - or appear on TV or in the movies.

The festival draws press and producers from around the world. What keeps theater professionals and critics coming back is the thrill of the new. In a single weekend - culled from 3,000 entries - six full-length plays, one series of 16 miniature plays, three 10-minute plays, and seven "phone" plays (where a listener can pick up a phone in the lobby and hear a production) deluged audiences with vivid imagery.

Balancing established playwrights with emerging talents, and realistic plays with experimental, the festival is a barometer of what's happening in the theater. Two years ago, for example, "Dinner with Friends" by Donald Margulies premiered at Humana and went on to play in New York and win a Pulitzer Prize. This year it will become an HBO movie.

Of those artists who devote themselves to theater, only a few make a decent living at it. Why do they bother? What are playwrights saying today? And what new forms are they creating? These are questions the annual festival often seems to address.

This year's Humana felt slightly more eccentric than usual. Maybe it was because longtime director Jon Jory was no longer at the helm, although new producing director Marc Masterson says he has made no major changes.

'The real world isn't real'

Even the most realistic plays at the festival had an edge of hysteria. Yet the most extreme experiments were sane at their core.

Thought-provoking as it is, Mac Wellman's highly intellectual and poetic Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness slaps the viewer upside the head, asking us to exchange our sense of reality for Wellman's.

The play takes place in a "vast, metaphysical Rhode Island," where members of the wealthy Ring family gather for a family portrait. All the family dress in white - and feathers, fur, and snow fly again and again.

The assumptions of privilege, superiority, race, and culture that the word "whiteness" implies determine how we see "reality." These assumptions he turns on their head by making the word synonymous with "sin."

"The real world isn't real - it's quite mad," Wellman says. "In conversation people don't know what they are saying, and they don't care. One of the things theater is about is that there is always a slippage between what people say and what they do."

Wellman indicts us for arrogance and presumption. Jane Martin, in the screwball, surreal comedy Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, satirizes the ethos of the West, ridin,' ropin,' and shootin.' The raucously funny tale concerns an aging rodeo queen who "heals" hurt cowboys with rest and recreation on her own terms. When a young girl shows up pregnant, chased by a psycho-biker, a six-gunfull of lead can't kill him. And every time he rises again, the humor gets grosser. It's a witty stab at our entertainments, with all their guns and gore, at our traditional Western stereotypes, and at our society, whose values have become so pragmatic and self-interested.

Richard Dresser's dismal take on modern marriage, Wonderful World, argues that honesty is not always the best policy - particularly when it comes to confessing that you've thought about murdering your beloved. Making the best of dysfunction seems to be the best these characters can do. It's a sad commentary on our expectations about love.

Sadder yet is Melanie Marnich's nicely written, but ultimately disappointing Quake. It offers us a vision of one woman's romantic pursuit of "true love." But there is no romance in it, nor the light of compassion. The girl (whose heroine is a serial killer) pursues one male after another, finding them all inadequate. Finally she meets a brute who rapes and abuses her. Such a bleak view of men, of love, and of feminist autonomy seems dated and ungenerous.

Eduardo Machado is an exceptional writer, but his When the Sea Drowns in Sand is alternately insightful and self-indulgently whiny. A man exiled from Cuba as a child at last goes home to visit his beloved country. But gay men are not as welcome there, as he had hoped, nor are his memories of childhood helpful in finding his way to a sense of home.

Arthur Kopit started his career as a maestro of theater of the absurd with "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad" in the 1960s, as he satirized Freudian psychology. His highly acclaimed "Indians" (1968) attacked the victimization of native Americans, and "Road to Nirvana" savaged Hollywood values. And "Y2K" (which premiered in 1999 at Humana) haunted audiences with a scary vision of technologically stolen identity.

This year he returned to the serial format of bygone days for inspiration - with a jolt of the absurd, cleverly raising hair and heck.

In Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, we first see Chad as a child who has been chosen to handle a gift from God and keep it safe.

The forces of darkness pursue him (hilariously) throughout his life. There's a bit of "Star Wars" silliness and grandeur about the play. Still, it is all about the search for meaning despite the chaos of evil motives.

Kopit explains: "There is something about the fight between good and evil that is primal....

"It's the essential questions that still matter in the theater: Who are we? What are we doing here? How can we handle it? And what does it mean?"

Wild colors, layers of meaning

Charles Mee's bobrauschenbergamerica bombards the eye with wild color and the imagination with layers of meaning. Directed by the extraordinary cutting-edge artist Anne Bogart, the show is a visual delight. It calls up a montage of images from the work of American Pop Art icon Robert Rauschenberg, from his "Monogram" (the famous goat with tire) to a giant American flag painted onto the stage and the back wall. Rauschenberg juxtaposes apparently unrelated images, making correlations most of us would never otherwise see. Excerpts from Walt Whitman, scientist Philip Morrison, and Bob himself become, like the Rauschenberg images, part of this 3-D collage.

A homeless man speaks eloquently of the rural area where he grew up. Bob's mother appears in a crisp apron, telling us that art had no place in their lives yet speaking of her sons with reverent affection. A man tells goofy chicken jokes. A woman falls in love with the homeless man. Another man is suddenly shot. The pizza man turns out to be a sociopath.

Still, we are reminded that forgiveness is possible. The roiling ideas exhilarate and uplift because whether we understand it or not at a given moment, life is rich and full of unanticipated beauty.

"What has always appealed to me about his work is that Rauschenberg seems so open, embracing of difference," playwright Mee says. "He picked up objects others had thrown away and said: 'This, too, is beautiful' - without ignoring the dark side...."

"I do think the play [offers] some kind of model of goodness," Mee adds. "To live in the spirit of Rauschenberg is to love and be respectful of others. Robert's is a generous spirit.... You begin to be impressed with the immense goodness of life and stop taking it for granted."

Art, he says, can clear a space for the viewer to step into and see how it feels to live in a particular way. He points out that other plays clear a space and say "this is the world we live in - we need to change it."

The Humana Festival is good at clearing spaces for our imaginations to inhabit. To see the world as it is, is to see it from many angles all at once.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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