38th Humana Festival of New American Plays

American Theatre Critics Association Conference
Actors Theatre of Louisville
April 3 through April 6, 2014

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker


Preceded by an unrelated show at Theatre 502, an independent group in downtown Louisville, the ATCA main annual conference took in seven performances, along with a “Perspectives in Criticism” lecture by Lauren Gunderson. In a presentation of the prestigious Steinberg Award for playwriting, Ms. Gunderson took first place for a work entitled “I and You.” It was not staged at the Festival but was given the award by the Executive Chair and head of the New Play Committee of ATCA. It judges and determines awards to the three finalists in the Steinberg contest. The performances I saw were:

brownsville song (b-side for tray)
by Kimber Lee
Directed by Meredith McDonough

Starting with a barely audible monologue by Cherene Snow as Lena, grandmother of Tray, a black teen gang-killed with little motivation, the play brings him to dramatic life through her memories. Tray (expressive John Clarence Stewart) stood out in his area of Brooklyn as a student athlete who planned to go on to college. He part-timed at Starbucks, but when Lena (whose emotions were played with strength by Snow) worked at two jobs, Tray took care of his sister Devine. His interactions with the ten year old (Sally Diallo, well keyed into Devine's feelings) tell a lot about their capacity to love and hope despite the challenges they face from family and neighborhood situations. Devine tries to escape these harsh realities by dreaming.

 After years of absence, Tray's mother Merrell (Jackie Chung, effective) tries to reconnect. A former English teacher, she'd lost her position and been through four years of odd jobs due to alcoholism. How did she fare with Tray and how will she fare after his death? The play also questions whether Joshua Boone's sensitively portrayed Junior College Student will be embroiled in a volatile future.

Scenic designer Dane Laffrey appropriately surrounded much activity in concrete blocks and formed a vital relationship with Ben Stanton's fine lighting that changes with the seasons. Well chosen music, from mod mixing to “Swan Lake” excerpt, figured into Jake Rodriguez's sound design. Connie Furr Soloman supplied urban costumes. Stage manager was Stephen Horton for the no intermission, 100 minute performance.

by Dorothy Fortenberry
Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Nearly ecstatic about her marriage to struggling writer Paul, “food stylist” Clare wants her best friend and prospective food truck business partner Ezra to wed his boyfriend Brady. She gets heavily involved in gay marriage issues while Ezra wants to use Paul's credit card to get (illegally) start-up money so he doesn't have to ask his rich parents. Brady is wishy-washy about marrying because he can't bring himself to promise to be monogamous at all times and forever. So at the start of the play the end is pretty much telegraphed. Then, in the next scene, Clare gets a financial windfall that she tries to keep secret from Paul. Maybe good-at-wisecracking Kasey Mahaffy as Ezra too. The play becomes about how money and the use of it affects relationships.

Essentially a few chapters of a sitcom with sometimes snappy dialogue, “Partners” has a too-fussy set (there's a never used big bathtub, for instance), okay lighting, and original music that's pretty much innocuous. The director seems to stretch out activities to make the play more than one-act with a few scenes. Even the food served at the start doesn't indicate Clare has much chance of realizing her hopes. Neither, it would seem, does the playwright at this point.


by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

A time-travel via fantasy, “The Grown Up” transforms Kai, age 10, into his older self at two different ages. Fond of listening to his grandfather's stories that concern a magic doorknob, Kai (versatile Matthew Stadelmann) uses one to enter an alternate reality. He leaves sister Annabel (nice Brooke Bloom) behind but she pursues him into his young adult world of TV production, run by a villainous exec (Paul Niebanck, razor-sharp). He has a druggie assistant Rosie (riveting Tiffany Villarin) who ably delivers one of the many monologues that slow the pacing but give time to figure out what's happening or be upset that everything is taking too long. Kai does move on to middle age and a male who's presumably his bed partner. But eventually he gets back in an interesting structured way that combines fantasy, mystery, and whimsy in a happy marriage.

There's fitting original music by Lindsay Jones which, if it had lyrics that told the story, might sing out: How you gonna keep a youth nice and innocent after he's journeyed to adulthood with the characters there? The writer implies that Rosie, who kind of combined the two, parallels Kai. At any rate, she's important and Director Ken Rus Schmoll underscores that. David Ryan Smith impresses as an old pirate who's now a seaman at a post on land. Paul Toben's lighting is especially important to the almost bare stage. Janice Pytel's costumes are atmospheric. The play would benefit from some cutting.

Note: Matthew Stadelmann's name is listed in the cast without the name of the title role he plays here. In the bio notes, he is acknowledged as Kyle in “Shem” only. I kept hearing him called what I interpret as Kai in the longer play without my learning of an authoritative alternate spelling.

Text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, & Regina Taylor
Performance Developed and Performed by the SITI Company
Music and Lyrics by Julia Wolfe
Directed by Anne Bogart
Starring Eric Berryman as John Henry

It's apparent that Ann Bogart's plays are being more and more wed to dance. Movement and mime in a dramatic context inventively begin “Steel Hammer.” From there on, except for a narrative monologue rather late in the play, tediousness takes over. So does a devotion to extended running in a circle or spinning out of it, mostly to music. That's by groups called Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval [sic], which should give a warning of its quality.

 An amalgamation of four different scripts re-mythologizes the mythological John Henry. Every time one of the scripts dominates, the extraordinary acting of Eric Berryman brings him center stage. His contest against a powered hammer especially thrills. So does his wife's monologue about their love-- and the difficulty of sharing it in a family context. His devoted Polly Ann is incarnated by Patrice Johnson Chevannes with the intensity and looks of a young Cicely Tyson at her best. Distinctions are often made between the John Henry of myth and his reality, where he was cast into prison from which he would never return due to trumped up charges against him. What is implied is that he was mighty among yet typical of blacks whose forced or undercompensated labor built America (perhaps a new myth unexplored here that disregards Appalachia, the Iron Range of Minnesota, and Western railroad building). Stephen Duff Webber acquits himself well as all the evil white bosses and uncaring political figures. Gian-Murray Gianino credibly acts mainly ethnic or humble white workers. Though she moves well, the facially expressive Akiko Aizawa's accented English is difficult to understand. That's a problem except when she joins a choral situation. Barney O'Hanlon, intense, is usually difficult to figure out and often appears to be a bystander or perhaps byrunner.

All the actors are helped by the flexibility of costumes designed by James Schuette.

I counted 14 anti-climaxes to the complete story. “Steel Hammer” needs a lot more development, preferably without dance that isn't really dance.

by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters

At a service in a megachurch whose debt has newly been paid off, Pastor (dynamic Andrew Garman), his Wife (pretty, sociable Linda Powell), his Assistant (serious, sincere Larry Powell) and Elder (Richard Henzel, benevolent) sit in a semi-circle facing the congregation. A robed choir enters and backs them up with song as uplifting as the colorful scenes of nature's beauties projected on each side. Everyone seems joyful as Pastor announces the building is solvent. Then he says he's going to lead in a different direction that still maintains Jesus exists but denies hell as a place of punishment. There's a new game to be played in this God Bowl!

Pastor's Wife is started and dismayed at the announcement. Even more so, Associate Pastor takes up the invitation to leave if in disagreement, taking followers with him. Elder isn't sure of anything but his own felt need to depart. Subsequently more and more parishioners leave, many to join the former Associate as head of a new church organization. From Pastor's choir then comes a Member who questions Pastor's new belief in relation to her personal spirituality. Along with Wife, she and most of the congregation begin to back a schism. Although there's no answer to the central religious question, the conflict over it has a devastating result.

“The Christians” intellectually approaches a dilemma that provokes thought and discussion while being entertaining. Defying contemporary fashion, it presents dignified believers who think. It gets one to wondering about Pastor: How trustworthy is his stance? Why did he reach his need for change at this particular time in his church's history? What motivates those who question and, more importantly, oppose him?

The story, substance, characterization, and staging (with all its technical elements as well as direct address, especially monologue) come together via bold direction in a fad-avoiding, fascinating drama that isn't merely New.


Ten Minute Plays
April 5 and 6

 Winter Games
by Rachel Bonds
Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh

Behind a bakery in a little desolate town near Scranton, PA, opposites get together. Julia Bynum as Mary and Jason Huff as Jamie get personally in sync in a short time that has lasting implications. It does, though, take a bit longer than ten minutes.


Some Prepared Remarks (A History in Speech)
by Jason Gray Platt
Directed by Les Waters

Bruce McKenzie is the Parkinson's victim who goes through an increasingly painful reading of his life story. He has a long list, yes list, of memories that mainly involve his grandfather, wife, and daughter. He's a bit like Beckett's Krapp although writer Jason Gray Platt never manages to put past and present on stage at the same time. Everything is recall in the present and involves his daughter's fate as much as the one that awaits him. Quite long, but not boring, as realistic actor McKenzie has been well directed. Essentially a monologue.

Poor Shem
by Gregory Hischak
Directed by Meredith McDonough

In an office, three co-workers find the corpse of another, Shem, jammed inside their copy machine. How funny is that? Actually, hilarious. They can identify him by his necktie. Whom should they call? Whose cell phone gets involved? Andrew Garman as bossy Kendal, Jackie Chung as a woman of conviction, and Matthew Stadelmann as a rather timid young guy bring the fictional corpse to vibrant life under Meredith McDonough's well blocked direction. 

I was unable to see “Remix 38” because of a change in my flight time back to Sarasota. It was a series of nine short plays or sketches by various writers directed by Ian Frank and performed by members of the Actors Theatre 2013-14 Acting Apprentice Company. Reports were that the plays were uneven in quality, though developed from traces of hit plays introduced throughout the Humana Festival's 38 year history. One particularly was described by a few of my fellow critics as “dirty”--probably because of explicit, deviant presentation of deviant sex.

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