Louisville theater festival: subtle changes in the showcase

For 11 years the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has served as a cultural sounding board. Those wishing to plumb the heart of American drama had only to travel, not to Broadway, but to America's heartland. For three days every spring, this modest Kentucky city transforms itself into one of the country's most visible showcases for emerging playwrights. However, after more than a decade of bringing to the surface such works as ``The Gin Game,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Crimes of the Heart,'' the festival is undergoing significant changes - alterations that reflect the fluctuating fortunes of the festival and American theater as a whole.

While many festivalgoers continued to scan this year's plays for themes, motifs, and a possible commercial afterlife, the more significant news lay in changes in the festival itself.

What began last year with the decision no longer to limit productions to premi`eres of new works resulted this season in a remarkably lackluster series of productions that had their first outings earlier. Of the festival's eight plays (the leanest season in as many years), six were originally produced or developed elsewhere. And the only scheduled full-length premi`ere - ``Glimmerglass,'' an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's ``Leatherstocking Tales,'' by Jonathan Bolt - was pulled out at the last minute.

In recognition of the difficulties in finding quality new drama, Jon Jory, the ATL's producing director, announced a further refinement in the festival's selection process: the commissioning of new plays by three writers of significance (two of whom are virtual theatrical outsiders): Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the play ``'Night Mother''), Jimmy Breslin (Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist), and Susan Sontag (novelist and critic). Each will premi`ere a new drama at next year's festival.

Several observers speculated that such headline-grabbing moves were a last-ditch attempt to reverse the festival's declining fortunes. Recent years have seen fewer talented playwrights and virtually no blockbuster hits emerge from the festival. Others suggested that more fruitful commissioning might result from tapping already established playwrights - including Beth Henley, Jane Martin, and Lee Blessing - who began their careers at Louisville.

Mr. Jory, however, defended the changes as the theater's response to the evolving nature of American drama. ``It used to be that there were only four theaters in the country doing new work,'' he said. ``Now, virtually every [regional] theater does premi`eres. We want to create some new excitement.''

But that excitement, alas, must wait another year. Among the exceptionally lightweight dramas - including three one-acts, five comedies, and a science-fiction drama - some productions were worth noting, either for writing talent (Mayo Simon's ``Elaine's Daughter'') or individual performances (actors David Bottrell and Peter Zapp).

Nonetheless, the overall impressions that emerged were of: a continuing emphasis on naturalistic, domestic drama; consistently indifferent directing (with the notable exception of Jory's controlled work); and a tendency toward overproduction (Paul Owen's chockabloc garbage dump and auto repair shop sets are almost de rigueur now).

Perhaps the most disturbing impression was an apparent trend among Louisville playwrights to rely heavily on episodic writing, sitcom humor, and filmic devices at the expense of more powerful theatrical techniques.

Indeed, one of the worst offenders was the festival's kickoff production, Frederick Bailey's ``Gringo Planet.'' In this misguided attempt to marry science fiction with stage comedy, Mr. Bailey's background as a screenwriter for Hollywood schlockmeister Roger Corman was all too evident. Although the five-member cast labored mightily, only Peter Zapp put anything other than his vocal cords to work. His soliloquy revealed a highly original acting talent.

Jon Klein's ``T Bone 'n' Weasel'' was another entry in the movie-script-disguised-as-a-stage-play category. Geoffrey Ewing and Ben Siegler were fine as the mixed-race, on-the-lam duo. But it was William McNulty's enviable acting task to play nine different characters.

Kendrew Lascelles's ``Water Hole,'' with its set straight out of Banana Republic, was admirable in its intent to explore cultural exploitation amid an east African famine. It suffered from the omission of any but affluent white characters and the inclusion of such psycho-babble as ``I'm not the man on the inside I appear to be on the outside.''

The festival's one-act plays offered the usual varied menu: Howard Korder's ``Fun'' for its David Mametlike dialogue between two aimless teens, admirably played by Tim Ransom and Doug Hutchison; Andy Foster's gimmicky but clever ``Chemical Reactions''; and Deborah Pryor's ``Love Talker,'' a rambling bit of regional theater notable for its Appalachian myth and Suzanna Hay's galvanizing performance.

Grace McKeaney's full-length ``Deadfall'' was the other piece of overtly regional drama. Running a full three hours, it desperately needs more than directorial shaping to hone it into something other than a convoluted imitation of Beth Henley's Southern Gothic comedies. Beth Dixon was stirring as the tomboy Bay Brewer; Sally Sockwell, as the flirty Queenanne Fells, only needs a firm directorial hand to bring her considerable comic talents to heel.

The sharpest bit of comedic writing came in Mayo Simon's ``Elaine's Daughter'' - clearly the festival's best production and one of the few works that seemed actually written for the stage and not the screen. This generational conflict between a traditional housewife and her feminist daughter succeeded in being both touching and humorous. Skillfully directed by Jules Aaron, ``Elaine's Daughter'' revealed a real playwright in Mr. Simon and fine comedic performances from Jill Holden (the ugly duckling daughter) and David Bottrell (the homosexual confidant).

It remained the province of a stage documentary, ``Digging In: The Farm Crisis in Kentucky,'' to provide the festival's most moving piece of theater. Culled from 1,400 pages of actual interviews by Julie Crutcher and Vaughn McBride, the 60-minute staged reading chronicled the decline and fall of the American farmer on both domestic and political levels. Although it needs dramatic structure and shaping - as a post-performance colloquy demonstrated - the documentary provided an affecting hour of human drama refreshingly free of cinematic artifice.

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