Two impulses ran perceptibly through the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The first was a commitment to inclusivity and diversity that permeated the festival at nearly every level. Four of the five playwrights who received full productions at the festival were female; two of those were Asian-American. The writers invited to contribute to the multi-authored “apprentice play” were equally diverse, including a Latinx writer and a female writer of Indian descent. Four of the festival’s six directors this year were female, the fifth was a Latinx man, and many of the designers were either female or members of underrepresented minorities. All of the plays featured diverse casts pulled from a majority-minority ensemble (twenty-six out of the forty-eight actors across all the productions were actors of color), and several of the plays – including, especially, the collaboratively written You Across from Me, featuring the apprentice company – explicitly, and often humorously, called attention to the struggles women and minorities face in getting their stories in front of audiences. If you’re looking for an institution that has embraced a mandate to “close the gap,” the Actors Theater of Louisville seems a good place to start.
A second impulse that threaded through many, though not all, of the plays presented was a preoccupation with death and loss. I suspect this commonality was more serendipitous than planned; nonetheless, the reflection of our world that emerged out of this festival was a rather desolate, and in places downright dispiriting, one.
Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This tells the story of a Kentucky family reunited at the hospital bedside of their cancer-stricken mother, Masako (Ako). Daughter Sophie (Emma Kikue) is a born-again Christian; her older sister, Hiro (Satomi Blair), works as a high-flying account manager in New York City. Their father, James (Jay Patterson, superb in the role) is a recovered alcoholic; his history of booze-fueled abuse towards both wife and daughters informs the primary conflict of the play, which mainly revolves around Hiro’s refusal to return fully to the family fold. Instead of spending time with her ailing mother, Hiro pals around and smokes dope with an old high-school acquaintance, John (Tom Coiner). Although the subject matter is grim – it’s clear that Masako will not survive – the play is quite funny, and the cast, directed by Morgan Gould, worked the script with terrific comic timing. However, I don’t fully know what to make of my impression that – in a play written by an Asian-American woman about a bi-racial family – the most interesting, complex, and compelling character was the late-middle-aged white man.
Marginal Loss, by Deborah Stein, also deals with death and loss, albeit on a much larger scale. The play is set in the week right after 9/11, in a warehouse in New Jersey where employees of a financial firm that had been obliterated in the terrorist attacks are attempting to piece the business back together, using an ancient computer with a dial-in modem and boxes of old paper files. The play’s fictional firm is modeled on Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services company that lost nearly 70% of its workforce when the World Trade Center collapsed; in the play, John (Ted Kōch), an equities trader, has a similar reason for being alive as the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald – he was dropping his child off at school at the time of the attack. Now John, along with coworker Allegra (Nancy Sun) and company VP Cathy (Jessica Wortham) face the Herculean task of somehow reconstructing tens of thousands of customer accounts and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions, all while also trying to come to terms with the devastating loss of their friends and coworkers and with their own survivors’ guilt. The emotional terrain this play traverses is deeply compelling, and director Meredith McDonough skillfully deployed long moments of silence that allowed the chilling horror of the magnitude of loss – in both human lives and in the data the characters must now reconstruct – to sink in. The play’s plot, however, felt somewhat inorganic to its situation, revolving as it does around Margaret (Carla Duren), an opportunistic temp worker who capitalizes on the firm’s need for extra labor to insinuate herself into the industry.
Labor is also one of the subjects of interest in Susan Soon He Stanton’s play we, the invisibles. Set in the upscale lounge/bar area of a swank New York hotel, we, the invisibles tells the story of playwright Susan’s (Rinabeth Apostol) journey in writing this play about her experience working with a veritable United Nations of maids, bellhops, cooks, bartenders, hostesses, security guards, and other hotel employees. Susan narrates throughout, often commenting not only on the events she recounts but also on her own artistic decisions (at one point, for example, one of her characters accuses her of having made him too two-dimensional and announces he’s leaving the play). The issues that crop up along the way include sexual harassment and assault (a primary touchpoint for the plot is Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo), racism, the sacrifices made by immigrants who come to the US, white entitlement, exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the unfairness of our justice system, #MeToo, the corrupting effects of power, Susan’s love life, the challenge of becoming a playwright, and even the evils of Big Pharm. The hodgepodge of themes, issues, and storylines made it seem as if Stanton was rummaging around in a really enormous purse and pulling out one item after another to bring to our attention, and although all those items might have been worthy of focus individually, their quantity was overwhelming. Yet the ensemble for this production – in addition to Apostol, the cast included Tricia Alexandro, William DeMeritt, Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Emily Kuroda, Kurt Kwan, and Luis Moreno – was excellent. All of the actors except Apostol played multiple roles, with multiple accents and a gazillion costume changes (designed by Kara Harmon), and director Dámaso Rodríguez did a fine job of keeping the action flowing on scenic designer William Boles’s ingeniously flexible set.
The clear audience-pleaser of the festival was Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s outrageous play Do You Feel Anger? I’m not fully sure I am up to the task of describing this production, which was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, but I will try. Imagine the most toxic work environment possible, and then push it another few degrees into absurdity, and you have the world of Nelson-Greenberg’s play: a world in which Eva (Megan Hill) is mugged at work on a daily basis and must invent a boyfriend so that her male co-workers Jordan (Bjorn DuPaty) and Howie (Amir Wachterman) won’t constantly hit on her. They all work for a debt collection agency (of course!), and their extreme inappropriateness on collection calls has forced their boss, Jon (Dennis William Grimes, who does a masterful comic bit about women’s periods that I won’t soon forget) to hire outside consultant Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) to provide empathy training. Jordan, Howie, and Jon occupy the extreme end of emotional stuntedness – at the beginning of the play, the only feelings they can identify are hunger, anger, and “horn” (which is “when you want to have sex with someone”). They are also so thoroughly entitled that their impropriety knows no bounds: Jon suggests to Sofia that she would excel more at her job if she wore a dress, and one of the first things Howie tells Sofia, on meeting her, is that he wants to have sex with her. Eva, meanwhile, has developed desperate survival mechanisms for navigating this hostile work environment, most of which involve either humiliating self-abnegation, inane kowtowing, or throwing a verbal curveball to change the subject.
I’ll confess, it took me a bit to figure out what was going on in this play (other members of the audience were quicker on the uptake): its situational absurdity blows up, almost beyond recognition, a dynamic that is so familiar and everyday that it sometimes threatens to pass under the radar screen, and it thereby allows us to see how easy it is for abusive environments to get normalized, even when they are lit in screaming neon. The genius trick of this play is when it turns to track how, even when the toxic masculinity is so extreme as to be shocking, there remains a structural pressure on women to accommodate men’s needs and feelings at the expense of their own safety, well-being, and integrity. Specifically, Sofia’s need to succeed at her job – which requires getting the baby-men in the conference room to cooperate – leads her slowly but inexorably to ally with them and gang up against poor Eva. Director Margot Bordelon established a high-energy, loud, over-the-top tone for the acting that suited the bizarre and off-balanced nature of the dialogue nicely, and the actors inhabited their oversized characters with verve and gusto.
Les Waters directed the final premiere of the festival, Mark Schultz’s Evocation to Visible Appearance. Here, too, the thematic material centered on loss; Schultz’s was unquestionably the bleakest and most nihilistic of the works staged. His central character is a teenaged girl, Samantha (Suzy Weller) who may or may not be pregnant and who certainly doesn’t believe that the future holds great things in store for her. Her pessimism isn’t just personal – she inhabits a world full of the detritus of the past, both figuratively, in the mess of her family’s deterioration, and literally – the scenic design (Andrew Boyce) is a big trash heap. She’s lost and more than a little manipulative, lying to her boyfriend Trevor (Lincoln Clauss) that she’s having his baby so that he won’t go to college. She’s also vaguely unlikeable. Her father Russell (the terrific Bruce McKenzie) is an unemployed loser; her sister Natalie (Ronete Levenson) is institutionalized for mental illness; her boss Martin (Daniel Arthur Johnson) offers nothing more than platitudes and cheery corporate-speak. She finds something of a soul-mate in Hudson (Luke F. LaMontagne), a heavy metal satan-worshipper; her involvement with him not only satisfies a craving for connection, but also involves her in nihilistic violence. Waters’ direction gave the production a moody, violent edge – the action was punctuated with loud bursts of heavy metal music and, at several moments, theatrical lighting instruments rained disconcertingly onto the stage as if the theater itself was also falling apart. The production was simultaneously inaccessible and haunting – it was hard to extract meaning from the play itself, but the imagery and emotional hollowness lingered.
The theme for this year’s apprentice show, You Across from Me, was “coming to the table,” and playwrights Jaclyn Backhaus, Dipika Guha, Brian Otaño, and Jason Gray Platt crafted a set of twelve short plays that interpreted that theme in a wide range of stories and styles. Running strongly through many of them, as I noted above, was a concern about who gets to sit at the table, who speaks at the table, who dominates the table, and who is left out. Guha’s three-part “A Date with the Family” comically skewered both gender role expectations and the practice of casting white as neutral. Otaño’s “DiversityInclusion” took aim at the way theater, film, and television gatekeepers pay little more than lip service to bringing more diverse voices to the table; the play made clever use of cross-casting to take some scattershots at microagressions along the way. Platt’s “Just Right” raised an eyebrow over the increasing lack of tolerance for a diversity of political opinions, while Backhaus’s “The National Foosball Championships” rebooted the Billy Jean King/Bobby Riggs sports-as-proxy-for-gender-equality battle and updated it to reflect the concerns of post-Millenials. Jessica Fisch directed the energetic twenty-member ensemble with theatrical flair, finding a wide range of tones and styles to suit the different registers of the writing but still unifying the whole through music and movement.