By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
That night saw a performance of Jane Martin’s Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, a daft mix of lusty cornpone sitcom and Grand Guignol. (Think Del Shores rewriting Sweeney Todd.) Despite some scantily clad actors and eruptions of gunfire and blood squibs, I fear Sage will probably go down as minor Martin. This mysterious playwright, who is better known for Talking With and Vital Signs, made no appearances at the festival, continuing the long-standing speculation about whether there really is a Jane Martin, a Humana legend who has been featured nine times here and who reportedly insists on staging her own work. Jon Jory‘s direction of Sage, by the way, was spirited and precise, giving the cast free rein to go over the top when necessary but knowing when to call them home.
While several California playwrights (including Guillermo Reyes) were represented in the so-so Heaven and Hell (on Earth): A Divine Comedy omnibus of playlets, only L.A. expat Eduardo Machado was at the festival with a full-length work, When the Sea Drowns in Sand. For my money this was the festival’s best work, a semiautobiographical story about a gay Cuban exile named Federico who, with much trepidation, returns to a land he hasn‘t seen since childhood. He’s accompanied by his friend, the straight Fred. The three-character work, vibrantly directed in the round on a spare apron by Michael John Garces, takes place against the backdrop of the Elian Gonzalez dustup, and Federico‘s conflicted emotions about Cuba come to the fore as he demands entrance to his bourgeois family’s old residence. Machado nicely overlays memory, the lure and revulsion of politics, and sexual tension. Unfortunately, his play grinds to a halt with some inexplicable (or obligatory) anti-L.A. jokes and during a scene both unbelievable and unbelievably long in which Fred announces his homosexuality. Not only is his self-realization jarring and poetically rambling, but I felt I had been led all along to assume he was gay.
When I spoke to Machado, he seemed a little tired from lack of sleep -- a common gripe among people staying at the nearby Galt House hotel, where an army of Project Pride teens had commandeered the hallways and elevators to hold meetings and sing inspirational just-say-no songs all night long. He was also still sore about a New York Times interview whose writer, he felt, had tried to corner him into attacking the festival‘s lack of “diversity.”
“He wanted me to get on the Latino bandstand, and I refused to do that,” Machado said. “Is this place prejudiced? I don’t know. It‘s very hard for people to want to do something that doesn’t come from their immediate experience. So places run by white guys are going to do plays that they feel something for.”
This was Machado‘s third time at Louisville, a place he finds warm and supportive. “The interesting thing about this place is that they give you total freedom, but they aren’t uninterested in you -- which is a weird balance,” he says. “I was never told from any sort of authority, You must do this, which happens a lot in regional theater. The pressure to please their audience doesn‘t go on here.”
Social interaction is an important part of the festival, and its organizers made sure visitors were involved in the downtime between plays with panel discussions and brief, prerecorded Phone Plays heard at special phone booths. That Friday morning, the buses had rolled again, ferrying a group of us to brunch at Louisville Stoneware, a century-old ceramics company recently acquired by Christy Brown, whose husband, Owsley, greeted everyone who entered the pottery shop and directed them to one of two men who were dispensing bourbon mint juleps -- at 10:30 a.m. The idea of 40 giddy people tottering around a pottery store had an undeniable comic undertow to it. When asked if there was something a little lighter than bourbon, a server, who was slapping a sprig of mint against his palm, replied, “Well, there’s wine.”
The festival‘s free-and-easy bonhomie could not survive in an arthritically uptight place like Los Angeles. But Louisville is an enlightened throwback of a town, a place preoccupied with sports, culture and bourbon. When I expressed surprise to one of the festival’s shuttle drivers at seeing people smoke in restaurants, he cautioned that one could not smoke inside the theaters themselves. The drivers turned out to be a friendly and helpful group, and one, who assured me that Louisville had “the full alphabet of drugs,” began listing which local club specialized in which gender bents and pharmaceuticals. Eat your heart out, Fodor‘s!
The Humana Festival is supposedly going to see fewer of the conventional plays favored by Jory and more of the experimental associated with Masterson. This year seemed to already tilt toward the latter, although Richard Dresser’s Wonderful World, a Masterson-directed comedy about two brothers‘ female problems, was little more than a parlor sexcom with a big set. Mac Wellman seemed to have exhausted all of his renowned wit in the title of his contribution, Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness. This opaque, circular fantasia with music (by Michael Roth) about a wealthy Gilded Age Rhode Island family, directed by Lisa Peterson, dragged on with no meaning or ending in sight.