Technology in fest spotlight, but human insights prevail

During its 26 years of nurturing new theatrical works, The Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.) has produced plays that have gone on to win three Pulitzer Prizes (plus two nominations), four Obies, and dozens of other prestigious awards. News media and theater professionals come here to keep up with the industry.

Because the eyes of the theater world are focused on this celebration of drama, everything that happens here matters – even the slightest experiments. The festival carefully balances established playwrights with new voices. While not every play is of equal value, most are substantial enough to help us "understand our little lives," as one visiting director put it.

One theme that emerged at this year's festival, held last month, was the role of technology in our lives.

"The Technology Project," a showcase of short plays, questions the nature of the theater – an art form founded on the presence of the actor (and, for that matter, the audience). The Actor's Theatre, in partnership with the EST/Sloan Foundation Science and Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, commissioned three playwrights to "interface with technologies," as the program puts it.

In "Voice Properties (On a First Date After a Full Year of Februarys)," by John Belluso, a handicapped man speaks to his date with the help of a Voice Output Communication Aid, like the one Stephen Hawkings uses. The woman is at first dismayed by the robot-like sound, but gradually adjusts – it's not there to curb expression, but to free it. Still, a voice aid and a wheelchair don't make the man – he's there for her to find behind the technology.

In "Virtual Meditations #1," by Sarah Ruhl, volunteers from the audience are hooked up to a heart monitor and asked to hold hands for three minutes – their heartbeats influence the color saturation of the projections. Their faces are projected on faceless mannequins. The play has been prerecorded. The point seems to be that our emotions "color" our perceptions.

Then there is "F.E.T.C.H.," a "vertical" play by Alice Tuan. It's actually antitechnological. It is, however, interactive. The audience chooses the sequence of the scenes. And the actors, arranged on a vertical scaffolding, wear technical gear to scale the scaffolding.

One came away feeling that none of the existential questions ("Why are we here?") can be answered by technology.

Of the full-length plays, Charles L. Mee's stunning love story "Limonade Tous Les Jours" involves video projections against the back wall, with the hero carrying a video camera and filming his beloved – a young woman he meets at a cafe. The effect, is, improbably enough, to rivet our attention on the immediacy of the theatrical experience and, at the same time, remind us of the way we remember certain moments as larger than life.

In Tina Howe's "Rembrandt's Gift," the old master bungles into the 21st century to revive a middle-aged woman's artistic impulses over the objections of her self-absorbed actor husband.

Howe's protagonist, like the master, is also a self-portrait artist – only her medium is the camera. When she explains photography to Rembrandt, he is captivated – it is the form he'd choose if he were to remain in the 21st century. The real point of the play is about doing the work given to you despite the demands of others.

Adam Rapp's "Finer Noble Gases," arguably the most insightful of all the festival's plays, concerns itself with the drug-addled lives of 20-somethings, members of a once-ambitious rock band who are as anesthetized by TV as they are by the pills neatly arranged in bowls on their coffee table.

Darkly hilarious at times, as these young men struggle to do nothing, it is also as grim as scorched earth. But as grotesque as their lives are, the possibility of redemption surfaces subtly. When a little girl, who refers to her parents by their e-mail addresses, enters the scene, we at first fear that they will abuse her. But that doesn't happen. In fact, they protect her.

There is nothing sentimental about Rapp's vision of redemption. The story is the more poignant because he has pulled himself out of a similar nightmare and has gone on to write fascinating stories and plays.

Of the other full-length plays – "a.m. Sunday" by Jerome Hairston, "The Mystery of Attraction," by Marlane Meyer, and "Score" by Anne Bogart and Jocelyn Clarke – the most engaging is the last. "Score" is a one-man show based on the writings of Leonard Bernstein, who loved to talk about art. Ms. Bogart mounts the production with a minimum of scenery and a maximum of lighting effects.

Idealism buzzed about on the stage this year. "Score" and "Rembrandt's Gift" emphasized what heights art can raise us to; "Finer Noble Gases" revealed how life can be reclaimed; and "Limonade" demonstrated what love can do for even those who have nothing but love in common.

At the festival, the American Theatre Critics Association presented its prize for the best new play produced outside New York. This year, the award went to "The Carpetbagger's Children," by Horton Foote.

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