It was about 7:30 when the lingering dusk finally bled into night as our buses rolled along the Kentucky bank of the Ohio, past the crab shacks and somber bridges, beyond the old Water Tower and deep into the country gloom. Our coaches seemed too big for the road, but soon they wheeled away from the river and onto an even slimmer thread of pavement, lumbering up into hills whose winter-dead trees stood like upended brooms.
Isnt this the party where they blindfold everyone when you get off the bus? a woman across the aisle from me asked a friend. Tonight was the big evening of receptions thrown by the Humana Festival of New American Plays to welcome its artists, VIPs and critics, the Thursday before the Actors Theater of Louisvilles blowout weekend. Until then I hadnt wanted our ride along the waterfront to end, but now the thought of being led blindfolded through the witchy dark suddenly seemed irresistible. Wasnt this, after all, why we were all here -- to drop the know-it-all masks we wear back home in favor of blindfolds that, with a little luck, would be removed in a theater epiphany? Wasnt this the seductive metaphor of theater?
Metaphors and portents seemed to be everywhere that March weekend. Watch Your Step. Welcome to Louisville, the sign at the end of the airports people mover said to new arrivals. Its one of those unintentionally funny notices travelers encounter, but it seemed to confirm a notion that Louisville is a town of signs and omens -- at least where the future of theater is concerned. For 25 years, the Actors Theater has been the countrys foremost incubator of regional theater. Most of Humanas big hits -- the plays that quickly took off in New York and elsewhere -- are immediately recognizable: D.L. Coburns The Gin Game, Beth Henleys Crimes of the Heart, John Pielmeiers Agnes of God, William Mastrosimones Extremities, John Patrick Shanleys Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jose Riveras Marisol, Tony Kushners Slavs! But so are the names of playwrights who premiered lesser-known work here, people like David Henry Hwang, Donald Margulies, Wendy Wasserstein, Romulus Linney, Marsha Norman, Emily Mann, Howard Korder and Naomi Wallace.
Not all the portents for the 2001 festival were good. Its energetic young coordinator, Andrew Crocker, had been in a bad car crash the week before, although he had walked away unscathed. This year was also the first season the event was led by new ATL artistic director Marc Masterson, the former producing director of Pittsburghs City Theater Company who had replaced festival founder Jon Jory, and so there was a changing-of-the-guard uneasiness in the air, even though most of the festival had been co-programmed by Jory and Masterson. But in the end, neither of these things dampened the festivals effusive spirit.
Sadly, though, blindfolds were nowhere to be had that first night. Instead, we parked outside a stone gate and hiked up the long driveway to the three-story plantation-style home of Maureen and Joseph J. McGowan. Hes the president of Bellarmine University and a refugee from New York, where he once served as a Fordham vice president. McGowan represents the New South in that hes a Northern transplant drawn to Louisvilles quality of life glow. Still, Louisvilles no Tribeca -- or even Hoboken. Downtowns dead -- its depressing, he admitted, referring to both the central citys nightlife and its many boarded-up buildings.
He didnt get an argument from me. Walk a few blocks in any direction from the ATL complex and youll find yourself trying to figure which Kris Kristofferson song best suits the desolate street youre on -- until you realize its all of them. But at the McGowans catered buffet the mood was fiercely optimistic, as women in French-maid outfits carried enormous piles of visitors coats to closets and men in vests poured drinks from a pair of strategically placed bars. Governor Paul Patton was there, as was Owsley Brown II, who owns, among other things, some of the states major bourbon distilleries, including Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Old Forrester.
Also on hand was Lucie Blodgett, a social columnist who is something of a Louisville icon. This gracious old lady, with her ever-present Nikon, sat next to me and in her languid drawl filled me in on local gossip, telling me about the time President Jimmy Carter, who had become entranced by his own sermon delivered in the presence of Pope John Paul II, began to dash off a stage -- before the pope.
But the pope was on the ball that day, Ms. Blodgett recalled. He stood up and said, After you, Mr. President.
The plays began the next day, and the ATLs lobby, along with its downstairs restaurant, was packed and buzzing -- the feeling was like a crowd anticipating a rocket launch rather than a play. Unfortunately, the first round of productions established the lackluster tone for this years festival.
That night saw a performance of Jane Martins 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 Jorys 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 festivals best work, a semiautobiographical story about a gay Cuban exile named Federico who, with much trepidation, returns to a land he hasnt seen since childhood. Hes 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 Federicos conflicted emotions about Cuba come to the fore as he demands entrance to his bourgeois familys 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 festivals 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 dont know. Its very hard for people to want to do something that doesnt come from their immediate experience. So places run by white guys are going to do plays that they feel something for.
This was Machados 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 arent 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 doesnt 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, theres wine.
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The festivals 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 festivals 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, Fodors!
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 Dressers 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.
Charles L. Mees bobrauschenbergamerica, which drew its inspiration from the life and work of artist Robert Rauschenberg, was a presentational piece about picket-fence American eccentrics that, before long, reminded me of how irritating picket-fence American eccentrics can be. Amid snatches of old pop songs and coy references to Rauschenbergs found-art assemblages, there was much evocation of suburban chumminess (the barbecue as sacramental rite) and sexual urgency (people screw in a bathtub) in both Mees text and Anne Bogarts staging. But apart from a gigantic martini that becomes a slip-and-slide for two characters, the productions visual charm could not sustain Mees wan script. Melanie Marnichs Quake, artfully directed by Susan V. Booth, was about a young womans Kerouacesque journey across the United States in search of a big love -- that elusive connection with authenticity that Americans are so obsessed with. Which means the show hemorrhaged bad, aphoristic poetry and road cliches; Marnich also glommed onto the current infatuation with science lingo by incorporating it into her patois, but all the references to fractals, double helixes and alluvial fans never had anything to do with actual science, much less her story.
I must confess that after being bombarded with all this high-minded, high-concept theater, the only piece I felt genuine affection for was Arthur Kopits satirical divertissement, Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, his profane, semipornographic send-up of movie serials. It involved a young boy who receives a secret message from God, only to be hunted down for it for the rest of his life by an evil priest and a merciless warlord. It was slickly staged by Constance Grappo, in three 10-minute segments spaced over two days, and had no redeeming intellectual value. I couldnt stop laughing.