Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Humana Festival Thus Far: Four for Four #hf36

Sometimes when I talk to Mama Lou on the phone and describe what I've been up to over the past week since our last phone call, she gives a long exasperated sigh and says, "You know, you don't have to go to everything you're invited to." I think she thinks at some point that advice will stick. But I kind of doubt it will.

No, I don't accept every invitation that comes my way. But I accept most of them. I'm sure even an amateur psychoanalyst would track this compulsion back to my I-was-a-teenage-nerd-and-not-in-a-cool-hipster-way days. But it is what it is.

But Humana Festival Plays are guaranteed, rock-solid, never-going-to-say-no invites. An invite pops up in my inbox, and I'm there. I'll reschedule other commitments. I get the cold sweats if there's a commitment I can't get around (I'll have to miss this year's 10 Minute Plays, for example). And that's because Humana Festival is always just that good.

That's not to say every Humana Festival play is a sure thing. I can think of a couple pretty thudding duds. But every play has the potential to be the one that you'll remember, the one that surprises you, or the one that you'll still be talking about several Humana Fests in the future.

So far, this year's plays have been great to astonishingly good. I recommend them all and three out of the four are "must sees" for certain kinds of people.

The VER**ON PLAY by Lisa Kron runs through April 1
When I work with my students on creative writing, I often have to remind them that the most intriguing stories are those that touch on universal themes and experiences. They're quick to dismiss these kinds of stories as "boring," but that's because they're teenagers and would rather write about anorexic, meth-head, suicidal twelve year olds. What's more mundane and domestic and ordinary than getting effed over by a cell phone company's customer service? Kron (who also stars as the afflicted Jenni) turns this experience into a broad comedy that lampoons first the problem at hand and then the potential solution (the support group scenes are the best) and then eventually blows it all out into an absurd full-on corporate conspiracy theory. It was the first Humana play I saw this year, and I really enjoyed it. It's since been overshadowed a bit. The promising beginning devolved into a little too much silliness at the end for my taste. But it hit some seriously funny moments and was definitely memorable.

HOW WE GOT ON by Idris Goodwin runs through April 1
This play may be the most universally likable of the four plays I've seen thus far. Although, some of the senior citizens in the audience of the show that I saw might disagree. But certainly for Gen X-ers like myself who grew up in the mid-80's in which the show is set, it is nostalgia wrapped in a contemporary ethos. This play captured a similar spirit that CHAD DEITY tapped into earlier in Actors' season. And I am still reeling from how good CHAD DEITY was. You just say the words CHAD DEITY, and I smile. Hell, if CHAD DEITY started a church, I'd be a willing congregant. HOW WE GOT ON didn't quite make that kind of devotee out of me, but it is a story that is equal parts sweet and cool. Three teens embrace the emergence of hip-hop in a suburb of an unnamed Midwestern City. It's about competition and collaboration and the creative process. Don't miss it.

THE HOUR OF FEELING by Mona Mansour runs through April 1
I've heard mixed reactions to this play, but I flat-out loved it. Most of the criticisms I've heard have been a bit nit-picky-- stuff about staging and set changes, problems that didn't seem to exist in the showing that I saw. Some of the stagey business did feel a bit... busy-- and the play would have been no less without them, but my enjoyment wasn't the least bit hampered by the slight messiness. A young Palestinian professor of English Romantic poetry juggles new-found (potential) success as a scholar in England and a new marriage to a wife struggling to find her own identity between tradition and modernity. If you're an English major and/or a Literary theory nerd, this play is a must see. It spoke so profoundly to both my undergraduate and graduate studies; although the word is never brought up, this play is about diaspora and home-- the former exemplified by Adham, the scholar and the politics of his time, the later exemplified by Wordsworth, the poet that he studies. In a lot of ways too, the play is about translation-- another theme I delved into extensively in my English degrees.  I loved the way the staging made use of supertitles and of the lead actors' varying accents to explore the importance of being understood. Really, I could geek out on this play for a while. I'd actually like to see it again.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Courtney Baron runs through March 31
Just typing the title of this play hurts a little. It's a little cutesy. And in the early moments of this play, the play itself seems like it's going to be a little cutesy. It's not. At all. Three intersecting narratives play out in this relatively short play that totally doesn't feel like a short play. Alice and Gabe are struggling with infertility and seeking to adopt a baby from Africa. Nance is on a first date with a suitor, the neurotic Tom, and she's also the social worker sent out to judge whether Alice and Gabe will make suitable parents. Evie is Nance's angry, bitter, overweight teenaged daughter who is BFFs with Colin, a New England boy new to town who is nursing an increasingly broken heart for the girl he left behind. Simple. Domestic. Ordinary. Again... such compelling stories. But what I wasn't prepared for was how quickly the play turns raw. Sarah Grodsky's performance as Evie is so frigging brave and dramatic (in that teenage way) that it will break your heart on the one hand and make you nuts on the other (just like teenagers). The whole cast is terrific, although I have to admit that Alex Moggridge kind of oozes charm unintentionally, making it a little hard to buy into Tom's dorky awkwardness. I've heard some complaints about the staging, but I thought that the claustrophobic nature of the three sets on one stage totally fit the oppressively intertwining nature of these characters's lives. (And... Dear Actors Theatre Costume Department: Where can a gal buy Alice's whole ensemble??-- stunning!) I think this was my favorite thus far. I don't think it's too spoiler-y if I admit that it wrecked me a little.

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