Humana fest scales theatre genres

Festival program veers away from tradition

“You should not reach the conclusion I am antiplot,” says Marc Masterson, a.d. of Actors Theater of Louisville and programmer of its 33rd annual Humana Festival of New Plays.

But you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Of this year’s Humana slate, unveiled April 3-5, half of the six offerings were not traditional narrative plays but belonged instead to the broader category of “theatrical performance.” These included the work of the fest’s biggest name, Charles L. Mee, who contributed his latest artist-inspired collaboration with SITI company.

Nonetheless, the two most buzzed-about shows fit cleanly within well-defined genres: Zoe Kazan’s American family drama “Absalom,” and Allison Moore’s self-conscious horror-movie parody “Slasher” — think “Scream” onstage with a feminist twistand fewer thrills.

“Absalom” seems the most likely candidate to be picked up in New York and regionally. The playwriting debut of actress Kazan (Broadway’s “The Seagull”), the 1980s-set tale centers on a family of writers dominated by cruelly manipulative patriarch Saul, played with commanding presence by Peter Michael Goetz.

The publication of Saul’s autobiography prompts the reappearance of a young man (J. Anthony Crane), whom Saul took into the family when he was a talented teenager and who bears a long-held grievance against his father-figure.

The play efficiently sets up and feeds off the slew of characters competing for some combination of control, fatherly approval or a plot they can steal and claim as their own. Kazan, herself the progeny of a family of artists, including grandfather Elia Kazan, explores intriguing questions of where one individual’s story ends and another’s source material begins.

But in this restrained soap opera, she tends to repeat and add conflicts more effectively than she develops them. Despite plenty of worthy material and Giovanni Sardelli’s clean production, the work doesn’t deliver a truly great scene or a powerful climax.

Climactic ineffectiveness also haunts Moore’s “Slasher,” which drew the most passionately divergent responses among fest attendees. The work centers on Sheena (Nicole Rodenburg), a waitress in Austin cast as the final victim in a locally shot pic. Battle lines are drawn between the film’s seedy helmer (an amusing Mark Setlock) and Sheena’s mother (an even more amusing Lusia Strus), a wheelchair-bound, pill-popping feminist with deep-seated anger and access to a power drill.

The show’s edgy appeal to a younger crowd makes it a natural for regional second-spaces. It’s also the play that could most use another draft to achieve its potential, cleaning up its backstory and sloppy climax, providing some actual suspense along with comedy, and deepening its vague feminist take on the slasher genre.

Of far less interest is Naomi Wallace’s “The Hard Weather Boating Party,” which assembles three employees of a toxic chemical plant to plot their CEO’s murder. The work immediately gets sidetracked by stale male-bonding sequences and theatrical metaphors on the far side of oblique.

Of the nontraditional work, “Ameriville,” from the writing-performing troupe Universes, was enthusiastically received, perhaps less for its writing than for the vitality of the terrific cast, a foursome who sing, dance and energetically detail the social ills of New Orleans and the rest of the nation.

Remaining performance pieces were less fully formed. For Mee’s “Under Construction,” inspired partially by the work of Norman Rockwell, that unfinished quality has a degree of purposefulness; the nonsequential series of skits celebrates the nation’s ability to constantly reinvent itself. Still, the work feels slight and gimmicky.

And although it’s reportedly selling well with local Louisville auds, “Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry” is simply a poetry presentation (Berry is a Kentucky native with a curmudgeonly folksiness) staged to spa music.

If there were any unifying factor among the six works, it had to do with their length — or rather, lack of it. While attendees expressed general disappointment with the overall slate, the frequent and mostly happy note concernedthe plays’ brevity. With most closing in an intermissionless 90 minutes, it was “Absalom,” at a mere 2¼ hours, whichrepresented the epic of the bunch.

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