Louisville Festival: Experimentation Onstage

A host of new plays characterized by fine acting, but uneven writing

MANY people believe that playwright Tony Kushner has single-handedly redeemed the last two seasons on Broadway with his two-part epic ``Angels in America.''

That may or may not be true. But there is no doubt that his new one-act play ``Slavs!'' was the single most eagerly anticipated event of this year's 18th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which concludes this weekend at the renowned Actors Theatre of Louisville. Unfortunately, both the play and the festival as a whole are severe disappointments.

This year's Humana Festival, made possible by the Humana Foundation, featured six full-length plays, an evening of two one-acts, and a program of two short plays. Nothing links the various works, in either form or content, except that in their different ways they manage to encapsulate much of what is wrong with American theater.

Romulus Linney, a veteran of the festival, contributed ``Shotgun,'' directed by Tom Bullard. Set on the deck of a lakeside vacation home, it concerns the triangular relationship of John (Tom Stechschulte), Fred (Michael Kevin), and Beth (Jeanne Paulsen). John and Beth are married, but they are getting a divorce because Beth and Fred are now in love. Fred is John's oldest friend.

One would normally expect this trio to act somewhat tumultuously, but no, everyone is behaving with utter politeness and decorum. They have only to break the news to William (Bob Burns) and Sarah (Gloria Cromwell), John's long-divorced parents.

William and Sarah are shocked at the news, but they are even more shocked at the utter placidity with which John is behaving. Hoping to take advantage of this maturity, they break some news of their own: They are going to be remarried.

While all of this is occurring onstage, one is trying to make out the playwright's intentions. For a while, it seems as if he is attempting a dark comedy of repressed emotions.

It's a promising idea, but Linney soon settles for a more formulaic direction, in which John becomes unhinged and reveals the true depth of his anger. The play culminates in a barbaric act of violence, which might come as more of a surprise if John had not spent the previous half-hour caressing the shotgun he has recently acquired - for ``hunting purposes,'' he says. Coming from Linney, whose previous work, ``2,'' was a highlight of the 1990 Festival, this is a serious letdown.

WENDY HAMMOND'S ``Julie Johnson,'' directed by producing director Jon Jory, is a fairly conventional comedy-drama about a woman's search for self-discovery. Julie Johnson (Lily Knight), a Hoboken, N.J., housewife and mother of two with no identifiable skills, leaves her husband and decides to go back to school to learn about physics and computers.

She is emotionally supported by her best friend, Claire (Carolyn Swift), a waitress who soon decides to follow Julie's lead and leave her own husband. She moves in with Julie, with unexpected results. Julie falls in love with her, and they somewhat fearfully begin an affair.

Hammond's play, glib and superficial, doesn't add much to a subject that has been previously dealt with in other, better works. But she does manage to write some funny lines, and the lead performances are quite moving. The kids, although well portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter and Wilder Schwartz, are of the precocious sitcom variety. The best performance was given by V Craig Heidenreich as Julie's teacher. His deadpan delivery wrung huge laughs from the material.

In Jon Lipsky's ``The Survivor: A Cambodian Odyssey,'' directed by Vincent Murphy, the media reflexiveness is dazzling. Try to follow this: New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg writes a book about his experiences in Cambodia and his relationship with Dith Pran. The book is made into the movie, ``The Killing Fields,'' starring actual Cambodian refugee Haing Ngor, who wins an Oscar. Ngor writes about his experiences, including making the movie, in his memoirs. Now Jon Lipsky has adapted those memoirs into this play. One presumes that the movie version is sure to follow.

``The Survivor'' is a heavily stylized blend of Eastern and Western theater, filled with the now-standard accouterments: ritualistic movement; the use of projections and masks, music, and sound effects; and dance. What it doesn't have is any cumulative dramatic impact, even when depicting the horrors of war-torn Cambodia. And its representation of the filming of the movie just seems silly.

Although Peter Kwong delivers a strong performance as Ngor, ``The Survivor'' is an otherwise deadening experience that reflects much time spent in an academic absorption of Asian theater, but little in the way of insight or genuine feeling.

Jon Klein's ``Betty the Yeti,'' directed by Jeff Steitzer, was, on the other hand, a sitcom of a play that never tries for anything harder than easy laughs.

Russ Sawyer (Stephen Yoakam) is a disgruntled ex-logger upset over losing his wife (Mia Dillon) to an environmentalist (V Craig Heidenreich). He has taken refuge in the woods, which are being patrolled by an overzealous ranger (Mary Lee). He comes upon a half-human, half-beast yeti, who takes a shine to him and who eventually is used by the environmentalist as a media tool. The yeti is humorously mimed and ``grunted'' by Caroline Swift; there is a sexual subplot to the relationship.

THE human characters are only slightly more developed than the yeti, and, while there are some funny lines and bits of business, most of the humor is strictly of the manufactured variety. Ironically, this play, probably the most accessible of the festival, is the one most likely to achieve some kind of commercial success.

Susan Miller's ``My Left Breast,'' directed by Nela Wagman, is a solo performance (only the second ever to be featured in the festival), in which the author describes her battle with and ultimate triumph over breast cancer.

It seems that every life crisis is now fodder for a monologue, but Miller, while telling a moving story, was not able to transform it into art in the way other monologuists can. Uncompelling in both text and performance, ``My Left Breast'' is more confessional than theater. At the finale of the performance, Miller lifts her shirt to show us her scar. It is an act of supreme political correctness, but at the same time it is disturbing.

Tony Kushner's ``Slavs!,'' commissioned by the ATL, is a fantastical, surreal journey through the Soviet Union during the first stirrings of perestroika. It contains scenes in such settings as: the Politburo, a secret chamber beneath Lenin's Tomb in which Soviet brains are stored, a medical facility at a radioactive disposal site in Siberia, and Heaven. It manages, in little more than an hour, to surpass even the imaginative excesses of ``Angels,'' while at the same time lacking that epic work's underlying structure and humanity.

``Slavs,'' not surprisingly, is not without an anarchic wit, but it is so dense and frenetic that the results are ultimately numbing. Well performed by a cast adept at both Russian accents and clowning, its seriousness is lost in silliness.

``Slavs'' was performed on a double bill with Phyllis Nagy's ``Trip's Cinch,'' a feeble exercise in psychosociology in which a professor, in the course of writing a book, investigates an alleged rape of a working-class woman by a rich businessman.

The festival also contains two works not seen, Tina Landau's ``1969'' and a program of short plays by Marion McClinton and Jane Anderson. Overall, it is not an auspicious showcase for the state of American playwriting.

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