Friday, April 1, 2011

Humana Fest 35: Sweet

This is the second year in a row that, thanks to the generosity of the folks at Actors Theater, I've been able to see every Humana Festival play (I still think we should earn merit badges for these sort of achievements).

Humana Festival is one of the great joys in my life.  And this year's generally stellar line-up has confirmed that this is truly the "most wonderful time of the year" in Louisville.  (I know I sometimes say that about Bats Season, but Bats Season lasts too long to really fit that moniker... it's just that in the dead of winter, when Bats Season feels synonymous with "temperate temperatures" and "sitting outside with a beer and good friends," Bats Season feels so darned magical.)  Any Louisvillager with a drop of theater-geek blood in them should feel uncommonly blessed to live in the city that is home to this amazing festival of New American Plays.

This year's festival has seemed a little less diverse than previous festivals.  It's leaned toward the narrative plays and has featured fewer abstract, experimental works.  No complaints here, I guess.  While some of my favorite plays from last year's Festival were the more abstract ones (METHOD GUN and FISSURES immediately come to mind), and at least one of my least favorites was a narrative (yeah... GROUND... hm), narrative plays tend to appeal to a wider audience.

But if there has been a fairly consistent common denominator among the Humana Festival plays this year, it might be this: sweetness.  The best of the plays have all featured tender, loving, sweet portrayals of complicated characters.

Most notably, EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM starred three characters (and only three characters) who were fleshed out by the playwright (A. Rey Pamatmat) with beautiful care and respect.  When I left that play, I told Roommate, "I think I just fell in love with a 16 year old gay nerd.  Is that wrong?" (I was speaking of Benji-- if you didn't fall in love with him, you most certainly wanted to adopt him, right?)

BOB, too, gave us characters-- centrally, Bob himself, but support characters, too-- worthy of our love.  Through Bob's rise and fall and rise and fall and rise again, actor Jeffrey Binder's deep connection to his character kept us invested and rooting for him, even during the ugly moments.  The four-person chorus, who played all the support characters, morphed themselves into (and out of) complex people in the blink of an eye-- so many of whom drew the audience's genuine care and concern.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the tragedy that draws Katha and Ryu into their "not-cult" in MAPLE AND VINE felt absolutely authentic, tragic but sweet.  ELEMENO PEA features the most abrasive characters of the Festival, but when it all comes to a head, the play is really about Devon (played by the delightful Cassie Beck who was the best thing about last Festival's CHERRY SISTERS) who has made very ordinary-- haven't we all done stupid sh*t for love?-- mistakes that are laid bare in the most sympathetic way.  And DEVIL AT NOON, while being the most experimental show of the Festival, still set forth some of the most authentically wrought and deeply relatable characters of all the plays (see my previous post).

The two Humana Fest plays that didn't really toot my horn still had "sweetness" at their core.  I wish I could say that the Fest was a clean sweep of awesomeness, but I can't.

I was so hyped up to see THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES, written and directed by Adam Rapp.  I'm a big fan of the HBO series IN TREATMENT, and Rapp wrote for the "Sunil" storyline this past season-- the best storyline of the season, and perhaps my favorite storyline of the series.  I expected complex beauty from him, and EDGE fell short.  I wanted to be invested in Bernadette, but despite the fact that I share her New England prep school/Ivy-bound background and got all her in-crowd jibes about Loomis Chaffee and whether or not Mount Holyoke is as "overrun by lesbians" as Smith College... I still felt absolutely left in the dark.  I have no idea what happened in that play.  None. When the crowd applauded at the "end," I felt embarrassed.  I thought, "Oh no, the crowd thinks the play is over because she's walking out that door...." But it was, indeed, over.  I LOVE plays that give me something to discuss.  But this play left me utterly perplexed.

And I wish the Apprentice show had left me perplexed.  Last year's HEIST was an apprentice show that melded site-specific theater with audience participation... my experience with HEIST was, in short, one my top five nights in Louisville.  THE END, the apprentice show this year, had moments of utter brilliance (I will never forget playwright Marco Ramirez's segment called THE ONE THEY CALL THE BLOOP), but overall THE END felt like a high school skit about the apocalypse.

But, my goodness, this year's Humana Festival was a treasure.  The best Humana Festival I've seen since I moved here in 2006.  Even the less-successful works were imbued with sweetness and respect and love.

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