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Regional Accents

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.

“Isn‘t 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 Louisville’s blowout weekend. Until then I hadn‘t wanted our ride along the waterfront to end, but now the thought of being led blindfolded through the witchy dark suddenly seemed irresistible. Wasn’t 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? Wasn‘t 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 airport’s people mover said to new arrivals. It‘s 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 country’s foremost incubator of regional theater. Most of Humana‘s big hits -- the plays that quickly took off in New York and elsewhere -- are immediately recognizable: D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley‘s Crimes of the Heart, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, William Mastrosimone‘s Extremities, John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jose Rivera‘s Marisol, Tony Kushner’s 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 Pittsburgh‘s 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 festival’s 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. He‘s 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 he’s a Northern transplant drawn to Louisville‘s “quality of life” glow. Still, Louisville’s no Tribeca -- or even Hoboken. “Downtown‘s dead -- it’s depressing,” he admitted, referring to both the central city‘s nightlife and its many boarded-up buildings.

He didn’t get an argument from me. Walk a few blocks in any direction from the ATL complex and you‘ll find yourself trying to figure which Kris Kristofferson song best suits the desolate street you’re on -- until you realize it‘s all of them. But at the McGowan’s 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 state’s major bourbon distilleries, including Jack Daniel‘s, 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 ATL’s 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 year‘s festival.

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.

Charles L. Mee’s 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 Rauschenberg‘s 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 Mee’s text and Anne Bogart‘s staging. But apart from a gigantic martini that becomes a slip-and-slide for two characters, the production’s visual charm could not sustain Mee‘s wan script. Melanie Marnich’s Quake, artfully directed by Susan V. Booth, was about a young woman‘s 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 Kopit’s 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 couldn‘t stop laughing.