Love Makes Plays Go 'Round At Humana Theater Festival

American works unveiled this year give relationships center stage

With the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the Actors Theatre of Louisville has proved it possible for a small regional theater to make an enormous contribution to the arts of its time.

Many theater festivals have come and gone since the Humana Festival began. Some still produce new plays. But one thing that distinguishes the Humana Festival is its longevity.

For 21 years, the Actors Theatre has championed the work of many exciting contemporary playwrights, including Joan Ackermann, Beth Henley, Lanford Wilson, John Guare, John Pielmeier, Wendy Kesselman, D.L. Coburn, David Henry Hwang, Horton Foote, and John Patrick Shanley, as well as a host of other lesser-known but important talents.

Several of the festival's plays have been published and become part of the world's theater repertory. Some have won prestigious awards (Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" and Coburn's "The Gin Game" both won Pulitzer Prizes), and others have gone on to become movies - Pielmeier's "Agnes of God," William Mastrosimone's "Extremities," and Foote's "Courtship" all made it to the big screen.

After so many years of producing new American plays and inviting the international press to see them, the Actors Theatre has all the elements down.

For 80 critics from newspapers and magazines around the globe, the festival offers an opportunity to read contemporary culture - kind of a barometer to the American mind. And the experience of saturation is one of the festival's charms.

Although artistic director Jon Jory insists that the festival committee avoids choosing themes and instead looks for balance, themes do seem to emerge.

Mr. Jory jokes that these themes only show up when the critical community tries to find them. But even he acknowledges that this year, love between men and women - the challenge of building and maintaining a relationship - emerged in one form or another in four of the six full-length plays. And if love isn't the main theme of the other two plays, then the havoc wreaked by the absence of love is a necessary condition for the ensuing tragedies.

"Private Eyes," by Steven Dietz, is an intensely clever, highly amusing play-within-a-play-within-the-mind of the protagonist. The story begins with a woman auditioning for a director. She doesn't get the role, and when the director shows up at the restaurant where she is a waitress, he doesn't get his dinner. But they make peace, and then the real director appears to give the two actors his notes.

Later we find out that the entire scene is all in the mind of the actor who is recounting it to his therapist. He believes his wife has been having an affair with their director, and he imagines the lies she will tell if he confronts her.

Dietz keeps the surprises coming, spinning on a variety of emotional dimes throughout the show that reflect the convolutions of his morally confused character. Just when you think you know what's really going on, he pulls the rug out from under you. None too insightful about solving the problems of love, this light comedy boasts some ripping repartee and a sharp comic sophistication, but very little human warmth.

Equally clever and lightweight is Richard Dresser's "Gunshy," a dated version of the comedy of remarriage. This is the one play in the festival best imagined as a movie. Evie and Duncan have been divorced from each other for some time, and both are planning remarriages. But somehow their divorce isn't working, and when both couples are shut up together during a snowstorm, Evie and Duncan realize why - they still love each other. The dialogue is full of amusing non sequiturs and weird reasoning. Maryann Urbano's performance as Evie is especially remarkable. Her wry, dry style and gravelly voice deserve a wider audience.

Not as clever or well-structured perhaps, but more humane is Edwin Sanchez's "Icarus." Sanchez has intertwined the Icarus myth about a boy who perishes in the sea when his wings of wax melt as he flies too near the sun with the Beauty and the Beast tale. But this time Beauty is a man, and Beast a woman.

A homeless and disfigured woman and her crippled brother move to an empty beach house during the off season. When a friend of the owner arrives in a black mask, the young woman falls in love, imagining him uglier than herself. But as it turns out, his disfigurement is in his character, and though he loves her, she rejects him at first. Though this play has many problems - not the least of which is an incomprehensible suicide - Sanchez has at least made a fascinating character in the woman, Altagracia. It's much harder to tell the story of Beauty and the Beast with the gender roles reversed, and Sanchez makes a convincing argument that a woman's beauty lies within.

The only true failure of the festival is Carol K. Mack's "In Her Sight," a dreary, 18th-century romance about a quack named Dr. Franz Mesmer and his patient, a beautiful blind pianist whom he "cured." The trouble was, once Marie Theresa Paradies could see, she could no longer play. Mack tries to make Mesmer a hero, though he had an unethical sexual relationship with the poor girl and really messed her up. Mesmer's wife is the villain along with the medical establishment, which objects to his methods and his abuse of power over the girl.

The playwright seems to be trying to establish Mesmer as a proto-psychiatrist, but Mesmer's lousy ethics and the dubiousness of his methods, to say nothing of the ponderous pace of the play itself, make the effort incredible.

In three of these four plays, no one really understands of love - all characters seem at sea in loneliness and self-concern. But a vague romanticism overlays the cynicism with sophisticated humor in the comedies and raw romantic nonsense in the drama.

The best two plays of the festival, however, are both alive with meaning and insight. Naomi Iizuka's haunting and unorthodox "Polaroid Stories" investigates the life of homeless teens who live in and around an abandoned pier. Though much of the dialogue is as raw as the life it reflects and very real (Iizuka interviewed homeless teens for months), the playwright weaves in the ancient myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, Semele, Zeus and Dionysus, Narcissus and Echo, and Ariadne and Theseus, among others.

As difficult as the material is, she brings it transcendence. And the audience still comes away with a sense of urgency to recognize and help these young people who so intently seek "the river of forgetfulness" from their tormented lives. Drugs offer only the promise of oblivion, but as the myths attest, life continues and demands to be lived.

And then there is "Lighting Up the Two-Year Old" by lawyer-turned-playwright Benjie Aerenson. A horse trainer conspires with the son of his wealthy boss to have a two-year-old horse killed by a kid with gambling debts. Aerenson has constructed a male world in which the saving grace of a female presence has been removed long before the action, and he lets his characters wrestle continually with issues of strength and weakness.

The play reveals dreadful consequences to a man who abdicates the meaning of his life, his ethics, and his strength (his love of horses) to save his boss and himself from economic devastation. He manages to do so without mere moralizing as the trainer (Bob Burrus gives the great performance of the festival) as he peels back layers of lies to get at the truth. Aerenson's style is so precise, his language so graceful, he unravels the moral center of the play until it lies down like a map of good versus evil.

Jory and the literary crew at the Actors Theatre have already begun to sift through the 900 plays (they don't accept unsolicited full-length manuscripts; plays written by unknown talents must be recommended by theatrical professionals) that will yield six for next year's festival. But some of those will contribute to the ongoing life of the theater - a life that depends on new voices and new visions to describe America in the late 20th century.

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