Drama festival sets itself a new course. Louisville event now includes plays that aren't brand new

For 10 years the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has served as a cultural divining rod. Those wishing to sample new American drama have had only to travel, not to Broadway, but to the nation's heartland. For three days every spring, this city has transformed itself into one of the country's most important showcases for emerging playwrights.

But now, after a decade of bringing to the surface such works as ``The Gin Game,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Crimes of the Heart,'' ATL has implemented some changes -- changes that reflect the fluctuating fortunes of both the festival and American theater as a whole.

While many festivalgoers, including scores of critics, agents, and producers, continued to scan this year's plays for themes, motifs, and a possible commercial afterlife, the more significant news lay in the festival's new approach.

Beginning this season, ATL no longer exclusively premi`eres new work.

Instead of accepting thousands of unsolicited full-length plays for its annual Great American Play Contest, the theater now devotes half the festival resources to staging plays that have already been produced professionally somewhere else. More than one-third of this year's nine works were originally produced elsewhere.

Some observers privately speculated that such shifts came in the wake of the festival's declining fortunes. Recent years have seen smaller numbers of talented playwrights and fewer blockbuster hits emerge from ATL. However, producing director Jon Jory explained the changes as a response to the evolving nature of American theater.

``It used to be that identifying new playwrights was the problem,'' Mr. Jory said. ``Now developing them is the chief challenge.'' He added that nearly 1,000 writers are currently writing for, and have been produced on, the stage -- a situation which ``was not the case 5 or 10 years ago.'' Among theaters now, said Jory, ``there is a good deal of jockeying going in the new-play derby.''

Such increased competition may explain the absence of any outright discoveries among this year's new plays. While the festival field wasn't as bleak as last year when the satiric ``Tent Meeting'' emerged as the lone success, neither was it as bright as the previous season when at least three ATL plays -- P.J. Barry's ``The Octette Bridge Club,'' John Patrick Shanley's ``Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,'' and Emily Mann's ``Execution of Justice'' -- went on to additional regional and New York productions.

Of this year's nine works, none appeared ready for market. Several pieces, however, were worth noting either for writing talent or individual acting performance. Among this year's entries were two one-acts, a historical piece, a comedy, a brace of melodramas, and two plays that were more performance pieces than traditional drama.

Several of the productions required posted warnings of nudity, violence, and unsuitability for children. With the exception of the festival's most controversial play, an abrasive series of Mametesque blackouts, many of the R-rated techniques seemed gratuitous, a somewhat misguided attempt to move the festival beyond its usual artistic conservatism.

As usual, opinions among festival visitors varied widely. For the critic, how to prioritize plays that require further refinement and rewriting was the question.

For example, Jonathan Bolt's ``To Culebra,'' a period piece about Ferdinand De Lesseps's building of the Panama Canal, played as an interesting and informative narrative but seemed topically more suited to TV's ``Masterpiece Theatre'' or a network miniseries.

Conversely, the festival's much-discussed ``The Shaper,'' by California playwright John Steppling, was theatrical in the extreme. Essentially a series of two-minute blackouts reminiscent of the verbal violence and physical menacing of David Mamet and Sam Shepard, the play provoked passionate responses for both its nontraditional structure and often unpalatable characters -- a collection of burned-out surfers-cum-stickup-artists.

The work has already been praised as one of the ``best plays outside New York'' by the American Critics Association. Fueled by the acting talents of Elizabeth Ruscio, as a tough temptress in black boots, ``The Shaper'' could possibly be shaped for a future.

Also promising was ``How to Say Goodbye'' by Mary Gallagher, author of the successful ``Chocolate Cake,'' an entry in ATL's 1981 festival. Again, galvanizing performances by women -- here Suzanna Hay and Christine Jansen -- elevated what was essentially a domestic drama beyond the ordinary. Gallagher's writing shows again that she possesses a keen ear for the rhythms and topics of woman-speak. However, this tale of three girlhood friends grappling with their grown-up roles needs fine-tuning in the motivation department before it will earn the emotional payoff to which it aspires.

This year's festival had two entries that fall into the humor category -- ``Astronauts,'' a crowd-pleaser by theater newcomer Claudia Reilly, and ``Illuminati,'' partly a performance vehicle by the talented team of Levi Lee and Larry Larson, authors of last year's ``Tent Meeting.''

``Astronauts,'' Reilly's first play, demonstrated the author's considerable ability to sustain a joke over two hours, despite the fact that its unlikely comic subject is a mentally disturbed girl. However, the wit eventually veered into bathroom humor, and many of the play's thematic underpinnings, including angst, have been done better before. John Shepard was a comic standout in a relatively minor role.

``Illuminati'' brought to the surface the same subject matter and satire that ``Tent Meeting'' did better. Less a full-fledged drama than a series of sharply comic -- and possibly offensive -- sketches concerning Southern revivalism, ``Illuminati'' flared occasionally but never really caught fire. Lee and Larson, as the irreverent preacher and his hunchback henchman, happily display their gifts as intelligent, comic performers.

``No Mercy,'' by Constance Congdon, was an unwieldy piece of commissioned political theater, dealing with Robert Oppenheimer, the atom bomb, and an Armageddon. It was more notable for its moral aspirations than dramatic achievements.

``Smitty News,'' by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, authors of ``Full Hookup,'' a past winner of ATL's Great American Play Contest, was an irritating and pretentious melodrama rife with psychobabble. The production was made all the more irritating by Bishop's unrestrained direction and an excessively mannered lead performance by Jane Ives.

The two one-act plays, Kevin Kling's ``21A'' and Martin Epstein's ``How Gertrude Stormed the Philosopher's Club,'' were not seen by this reviewer, but Mr. Kling's piece was said to have revealed the playwright as a skillful performer as well.

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