Criticism in the crosshairs at Humana New Play Festival

Louisville was the home of Hunter S. Thompson, the Lord of gonzo journalism until he blew himself up in 2005. For Thompson, every story about the world was really a story about himself. Thompson wrote about the Hell’s Angels, the Kentucky Derby, Las Vegas and the 1972 Presidential campaign, but what could compete with his own life, sauced as it was with exotic drugs (ether? Really?) and firearms? Thompson was thus, at bottom, a theater critic, with the whole world being the play that he reviewed, and himself being the protagonist.

My journalistic lodestar was someone a little more old-school: H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore. They say that inside every cynic is a frustrated idealist; if so, Mencken was the greatest idealist of the twentieth century. His great business partnership was with the iconic theater critic George Jean Nathan, with whom he published The Smart Set. Nathan criticized theater; Mencken criticized everything else. The Sage etched his portraits in acid; when the rest washed away, they remained. Thompson railed against Richard Nixon for years, but never wrote as chillingly effective an evisceration of a man as Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan, or of a movement as his description of a Holy Rollers ceremony in the woods on the eve of the Scopes trial.

So: was there portent in the fact that I was flying from Baltimore to Louisville on the eve of a planned GonzoFest to honor Thompson’s work? Maybe. Maybe not. It was also Industry Week at the Humana Festival of New Plays and, not coincidentally, the 38th annual convocation of the American Theatre Critics Association.

1.       Beer and Growthing in Kentucky

Steaks and bourbon the specialty at Down One, located directly across from Actors Theatre

Steaks and bourbon the specialty at Down One, located directly across from Actors Theatre

I am looking at my steak, smothered as it is with bourbon sauce, and trying to think of a way to consume it without, as they say, endangering my critical faculty. I have already had some bourbon, for politeness’ sake, but I am beginning to be worn down by the local taste for sour mash.

Bourbon is serious business here: the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that local forests are being depleted by the demand for oak barrels to age the stuff.  As an alternative, many local pubs offer artisanal beer, hand-crafted (I presume) in the basement flats underneath the ubiquitous four-story early-twentieth-century rowhouses here. There is even single-malt Scotch available, but it feels as exotic as a hamburger in Tokyo.

The American Theatre Critics are all housed in the Galt House, an enormous hotel (1300 rooms) across the street from the Actors Theater of Louisville, which hosts the Humana Festival. The rooms are commodious and cost only ninety-four simoleans a night; I am told that during Derby weekend the price moves up to $1150. Dynamic pricing! A ghost is reputed to haunt the 17th floor, but it may be only a confused tourist.

Here is the thing to know about the American Theatre Critics: we are all in love with theater. If a critic bites his thumb at a lousy play, it is only because he knows what the real thing is, and cannot abide an imposter. Many of the theater critics were another kind of journalist before turning to this craft; some have watched firemen carry bodies out of burning buildings; some have stood expressionless two feet away from a cadaver as a pathologist performed an autopsy; some have been to war. But I have seen them weep helplessly as theater artists brought heartbreaking home truths to the stage, and laugh like tickled babies at some witty and profound revelation.

I have even felt it myself. Here: you remember Robert Falls’ magnificent King Lear when it was done at the Shakespeare Theatre in 2009. There is a moment. It is in the final scene. Dover is awash in merciless slaughter. Goneril, having betrayed her father, lost her kingdom, killed her sister, stands in an ocean of blight and despair, takes her revolver out and shoves it into her mouth as far as it will go. Then she pulls the trigger. Blood and brain matter cannon out of the back of her head and paint the backboard as she slumps to the floor. But that’s not the moment.

The moment is this: immediately afterward, some poor nameless working-class slob, someone like you or me, goes up to the table and picks up a bottle of Slivovitz. He upends it, eyes closed, and drinks it with the avidity of an infant at her mother’s breast. Down and down it goes, and you realize, finally, that he is drinking an obscene toast to Goneril, for the rightness of her choice, for the solution she has found to the perpetual catastrophe her nation had become. That’s the moment.

And that’s the reason the theater critics have gathered together annually for thirty-eight years.  The profession is immensely challenged; journalists who thirty years ago would have held lucrative and respected positions as staff theater critics are now scrambling to find freelance work, and writing about gardening and fishing to keep themselves fed. I spoke to one journalist, from Dayton, who said that her paper was no longer doing theater criticism at all. She was distressed, but her guest, a Dayton-area Artistic Director, was even more distressed.

However, notwithstanding all that, the principal business of the convocation was this: to become better critics. To capture that moment, and bring it to our readers. To write more vividly, more astutely, more honestly. To make our readers love the theater, as we love it.

Toward that end, we invited Lauren Gunderson, who (now it can be told) would two days later win the $25,000 Steinberg New Play Award for her superb I and You, to give our keynote address. It is the first time we invited anyone but a critic to speak to us, but Gunderson has many provocative things to say about criticism, particularly in her tumblr account. The most provocative: don’t read criticism.

So by inviting Gunderson, we have decided to march into the lion’s den. By accepting, she may have felt the same way.

2. In Memoriam: The Old Criticism

The Actors Theatre of Louisville

The Actors Theatre of Louisville

The Actors Theatre of Louisville is a fifty-year-old company which began as a storefront (or more specifically, a tea room) and now occupies a city block. It inhabits the low-slung brown brick Myers-Thompson Display building, which is attached, like a remora to a shark, to the 185-year-old Bank of Louisville building. ATL owns that, too. There is a garage on the other side of the Myers-Thompson; a sign outside says “reserved for Actors Theatre Patrons” and at first you think, at last, a theater which provides parking for its actors. ATL owns administrative offices and rehearsal spaces in a building at the back of the Myers-Thompson, but civilians must walk around the block to get there.

They take their theater seriously here. They list a staff of 159, including interns and contractors, on their website. Among them: the redoubtable Kirsty Gaukel, who herds us all through the process with wisdom and patience. For thirty-eight years they have been doing the Humana Festival of New Plays, which has shown debut work by Lee Blessing, Tony Kushner, Lisa Kron, Charles Mee, Richard Dresser, Jane Martin, John Patrick Shanley, Langford Wilson and the like. Some unexpected names appear on the list of playwrights: William F. Buckley; Jimmy Breslin. Crimes of the Heart debuted here; so did The Gin Game. You can buy the plays here.

We are ushered in out of the Kentucky cold about 1:45pm and into ATL’s Bingham Theatre, which looks like the inside of a tornado would look, if a tornado had squared corners.  It had begun raining at about ten, and after that the sky had been boo-hooing all day, so that the grey seats look like a continuation of what we’ve seen outdoors, only warmer and drier. Jonathan Abarbanel, ATCA’s President, introduces Gunderson. Imagine an Archbishop who is prone to practical jokes, and you have Abarbanel. He says a few soothing words, flashes a sly smile, and sits down.

gundersonatca

Laura Gunderson delivers keynote address to ATCA members (Photo: Alan Smason, theatre critic, WYES-TV)

Gunderson bounds to the stage. She is small, delicate, almost fragile-looking, but as soon as she opens her mouth you can see that intellectually she is a heavyweight, of the Vitali Klitschko variety. She acknowledges the tension in the room, diffuses it, seeks common ground (we all love theater, and work for peanuts) and gets down to business. (You can see her address, taped for Howlaround, here; or read it in text here.)

“I can tell you that reviews of new plays are powerful forces in that play’s future.

I can tell you that people outside of our towns read reviews to decide whether or not they’re going to even read the play. Not everyone does this. But a lot of people do. It’s sad and unproductive and does not trust the new play process.

I can tell you that plays need to grow and mature and that usually takes at least one full production plus some distance plus another rehearsal process for the second production before it’s done .… ish.

I can tell you that sometimes new plays die too early because of poor critical reception. We all know this happens. I hate this, I’m sure many of you do too.

I can also tell you that I’m not going to accept that there is an inherent antagonism between critic and theatre-makers. Because we’re all theatre-makers. We are all audience-builders, and art-advocates, and theatre champions. Of course we are.

But this is where it gets tricky. Our relationship is complicated, and as much as I have the right to build a play as I see fit, y’all have the right and duty to convey your opinion of it. And sometimes that opinion is painfully powerful and stunts a new play before it starts.”

All right, I can see this. One of the astonishing things I experienced was my fruitless search to find critical praise of I and You in any of the San Francisco papers after its debut there. There may have been some, but it did not come up on my Google search. What came up instead suggested a bland and uninspired play – the precise opposite of the brilliant script I reviewed as a voter for the Steinberg/ATCA award.

So Gunderson worked the script over after its Marin County debut. I do not know if she made it brilliant during that transitional time, or whether it was brilliant in the first place but the left coast reviewers missed it.  But, as Gunderson pointed out later in her address, were it not for the National New Play Network’s rolling premiere program, the play might never have left California, and we would never have known how good it could be.

But: what are we critics to do? A new play stands before us, on a level playing field with Shakespeare and Williams and Albee, and it may cost fifty dollars or more to get in. If, as Gunderson says, when we watch a world premiere we watch only the fourteenth draft of what will be at least a sixteen-draft process, should we advise our audience to come back later, when it’s finished? But a play which is not ready will not get an audience, at least not at full ticket price.

But maybe I can do this: I can talk honestly and thoroughly about what I see. I can describe what works, and what doesn’t. If the play is not successful I can find a way to say so without saying that it will never be successful, that the cause is hopeless.

Except, of course, when the play will never be successful, and the cause is hopeless.

The second leg of Gunderson’s thesis is that we give critical opinion, not fact. This is, of course, correct. The reporter covering a neighborhood fire, or sitting in at a City Council meeting, reports on the facts, without interpretation. The house burned, or it did not; Council Member Bowser voted this way, or that. But theater critics are all interpretation, and everything we say reflects not only what happens on the stage but our own prejudices, beliefs and predilections.

I know this to be true. Peter Marks is an excellent critic, but there are some ways in which his taste is not the same as mine, and on those matters, I ignore his advice. Peter has little enthusiasm for argument or abstraction in a play, and so when he says, as he does about Arena’s Camp David, that the back-and-forth among the parties goes on a bit long, I know that I will probably like it.  I have also concluded that he is not a Shakespeare enthusiast, and so when I see that he has reviewed a production of one of the Bard’s works, I do not bother to read it.

But Gunderson’s approach is a little broader:

“We don’t know you. Some reviewers I do know, and I do trust them. Some reviewers have made connections in my plays that even I didn’t see -– linking styles to other writers, or connecting first act moments to final act moments. It’s amazing when that happens.

But for many of you, I don’t have that history. I don’t know your Point Of View. I don’t know if you’re a formalist, an advocate of absurdism, a PhD in Jacobean tragedy, of political theatre, of Brecht. I don’t know if you’d rather see Beckett or Wasserstein or why, and that means that I have no idea how to place your thoughts next to my own.

Neither do novice theatre-goers giving our art form a try. They could take your word for it, you write for fancy papers and blogs. But no one just takes someone’s word for it these days, certainly not young people. Who are you and why do you think like you do? What are your patterns, your interests, the last 5 plays you adored and last 5 you hated? That’s data. That’s context. That’s helpful.

With every review, at least online as I know space is so limited, why not tell us, remind us who you are, why you love theatre, and what you look for in a play. There is no such thing as objectivism. Why not define your subjective for us?”

Hunter S. Thompson defined his subjective for us, and Gunderson is correct: it helped us to understand everything he said, and wrote. It put his reporting in context. My subjective is not nearly as interesting, and I’m not certain that knowing it would help you to understand my preferences any better than reading my reviews would. I do not know myself whether I’m a formalist, or an advocate of absurdism. I know what I like. So do you, if you read my stuff.

But let’s give it a shot. Does it help to know that I’m a Republican? That I’m a white guy, whose people came from Ireland by way of Canada? That I was born in Western New York and went to college in Indiana? That I am a lawyer? That I am married and without children? Would you like to see my tax return, as though I were a candidate for President?

Or: how about this? Does it help to know that I am sixty-three years of age? In an interview with ATL Artistic Director Les Waters, a theater critic asked about Steel Hammer (more on that later), a decidedly non-traditional take on the legend of John Henry. Was the form of the play, the critic wanted to know, designed to specifically appeal to a younger demographic?

“I’m sixty-two years old,” Waters replied, “and I loved Steel Hammer.” He went on to point out that Anne Bogart, the artistic director of the company which put the play together, is also his – our – age.

So I’m not sure I buy that I put my criticisms in context when I define my subjective.

Every reviewer is unique, and so is every audience member, and every play is a unique experience. But I understand the larger point: that simply because I find a play inadequate doesn’t mean that you will – and, conversely, you may have no taste for a play, or a production, that I find wonderful.

Let’s try an experiment: review every play in the Humana Festival through the Gunderson Filter, acknowledging that a flawed new play might get better; recognizing that what I like you might not like, and vice versa. They’re all new plays here, and the stakes are low: the 2014 Humana Festival is over, and there is no guarantee that any of these plays will ever come to the Washington area.

Let’s go to the Festival.

3.       Through the Gunderson Filter

A.   Plays that will never get better

Louisville is much further west than DC, and so there were a few tendrils of daylight extant when we found our seats in the enormous (637-seat) Pamela Brown Auditorium for the 8pm production of Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray).

Going to theater is a little like falling in love; at first you are thrilled with the beloved’s virtues, and inclined to view all shortcomings as aberrations, but as time goes on and the relationship unravels you become queasy, and after an hour’s time, you are contemplating the cost of legal action.

Cherene Snow with Sally Diallo in doorway (Photo: Bill Brymer)

Cherene Snow with Sally Diallo in doorway (Photo: Bill Brymer)

So it was with this play, a four-alarm weeper with an unerring instinct for the banal and the clichéd. It opened with a woman of late middle years (Cherene Snow) sitting in the middle of the stage, face and fist clenched. “You better not start this play with me,” she growled, and I thought, good; the self-consciousness is interesting, almost like Stupid Fucking Bird. But that was the final surprise of the evening.

Who are the most familiar characters in modern drama? Powerful, old-school African-American grandmother? Check (Snow). Gifted young African-American athlete and aspiring scholar, killed in a senseless gangland shooting? Check (John Clarence Stewart – the development is made clear in the second scene, and so this is no spoiler).  Ethereal African-American child, who sees dead people and dances with them? Check (Sally Diallo). Troubled stepmother, who after seeing her own young African-American husband shot to death, turns to drink? Check (Jackie Chung). Redemptive scene in which everyone turns away from retaliatory violence? Do you have to ask?

So: applying the Gunderson Filter, can I say something encouraging about the play? Will it be better in two more iterations, or a dozen? Sadly, no, except by writing a different play. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there’s no there there. I cannot imagine why Lee wrote this; it says nothing that hasn’t been said many times before, and better. The production is fine; director Meredith McDonough keeps things moving; the actors (including Joshua Boone as a local college student) are competent and Stewart is extraordinarily convincing as the boxer he’s supposed to be; and the production values are amazing. Actor’s Theatre has turned the Pamela Brown Theatre into a magic box. But there is no magic going on on stage.

B. Plays I didn’t like, but you might

We have gone up to the second floor in order to access the Victor Jory Theatre, named after the old actor who fathered Actors Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jon Jory. Like the Bingham, it rises up steeply from a flat stage, but it appears smaller, and more intimate. On stage, four men and two women are frozen in dramatic poses, meant to show the efforts of steel driving men as they tunnel through mountains on behalf of the railroads. A chant wafts from speakers all over the room. I’m told it resembles John Cage’s work, but to me it invokes the old Gregorian Chant.

The SITI Company cast of Steel Hammer (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The SITI Company cast of Steel Hammer (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

This is Steel Hammer, a nearly two-hour meditation on the five-minute story of John Henry, the steel-driving man. On the face of it, the story seems faintly ridiculous: John Henry, whose job it was to drive steel into rock in order to create holes for dynamite, which would blow through the mountain, challenges a machine which performs the same function. Henry – described as a mighty physical specimen – wins, hammering through fourteen feet of rock while the machine can only get through nine. And then, hammer in hand, John Henry keels over and dies.

So we have a man who sacrifices his life – not for his family, not for his country, not for his ideals – but for the C&O Railroad and its shareholders. And to what end? To prove he is better than a machine? Perhaps, but next year they’ll bring a machine that can bore thirty feet, and the year after that, fifty feet. And John Henry? He’ll still be dead. (To find out whether your job will be done by a machine in a generation’s time, read this interesting article.)

But the SITI Company means to tell the story from all angles, which means first as a mime dance, and then as a gathering of folklorists who relate the story of the (probably) real John Henry, an African-American man who was looking for work in Reconstruction Virginia and was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge so that he could be hired out for labor to the Chesapeake-Ohio Railroad. (Solzhenitsyn tells the same story about the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors in The Gulag Archipelago.) This John Henry, they reveal, died not heroically but of silicosis, a disease which comes about from breathing rock dust.

And then they tell the story again, and again, and a third time. They tell it in dance; they tell it from the point of view of John Henry’s wife Polly Ann (Patrice Johnson Chevannes, wonderful in this), who as an aged woman recalls her legendary husband; they tell it from the viewpoint of a modern African-American prisoner, who heartbreakingly must tell his Polly Ann to leave him and find another father for his children, since he will never be released from prison; they tell it from the inside of the mines, where John Henry (the magnificent Eric Berryman) has forgotten his Polly Ann; they tell it in song; they tell it in gestures, some of them incomprehensible.

And it occurs to me that SITI is less attempting to tell a story than to sanctify a life – the fantastic life of John Henry the legend, and the impoverished life of John Henry the man. The chants take on the tone of a High Mass; the dim lighting resembles that of a Church; there is occasionally smoke, implying incense. SITI does not seek to entertain an audience; it invites a community to reverence.

And – I pass. I do that at most religious ceremonies too, I’m afraid. By the scene in which John Henry races around the circular stage, chased by other members of the ensemble cast, my mind has drifted from the fictive dream, and is dwelling on problems in my law practice.

But I am not you, and if your mind leaps to an opportunity to embrace the soul of another in all its ineffable glory, Steel Hammer is the play for you. Directed by Anne Bogart, with excellent ensemble performances by Akiko Aizawa, Glen-Murray Gianino, Barney O’Hanlon, and Stephen Duff Webber.

C.      Plays that I loved, but you might not

Lucas Hnath (his Red Speedo got mixed reviews when it ran last year at Studio) is a well-regarded playwright, and his commissioned work The Christians, was in my view the best thing I saw at Humana, and the only one to tackle a moral dilemma.

Cast of The Christians (l-r) Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell and Richard Henzell (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Cast of The Christians (l-r) Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell and Richard Henzell (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Back at the Pamela Brown Auditorium, the ruins of Brownsville have been transformed into a mega-Church. The Reverend Paul (Andrew Garman) presides, and after a few zippy songs from the choir (culled from local Church choirs, and not credited), he stands to give the day’s lesson. It is one the like of which his congregants have never heard.

He was at a conference, he says, when a missionary told him about a young man he met in a war-crippled African country. The young man was not a Christian; it was not clear what version of the deity he worshipped, if any. But when a bomb went off in a convenience store, the young man rushed in to rescue his little sister. The young girl lived, but her brother was burned to death. What a shame it was that the heroic young man did not know Christ, the missionary said, and would thus have to experience the everlasting fires of Hell.

The Reverend Paul thought long and hard about this, and that evening God came to him while he was sitting on the toilet. “That boy,” the Lord tells him, “he is standing next to Me right now. And anybody who tells you otherwise – lies.”

The Lord told him some other things, too. “You wanna see hell? You look around.” The Lord tells him “there is no hell. And there’s no reason to tell people that they’re going to hell because they are in hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the hell they’re in.”

The mega-Church has just paid its mortgage, and the congregation is in an expansive mood. Although Associate Pastor Joshua (the superb Larry Powell) cannot accept Pastor Paul’s abandonment of the core belief of their Church – that belief in the saving grace of Christ is a prerequisite to salvation – he initially has only fifty followers among the Church’s thousands of members. And yet doubt about the Pastor’s message fester.

“What about someone like Hitler?” Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a stalwart Church Congregant, asks later. “If there’s no hell, then what about him? Where will he go?” And later: “And so what you’re basically saying  is that if someone were to murder my son…and the murderer dies…then both my son and the murder would be in heaven together. And me too, when I die, all three of us like a big happy family.”

To me, having grown up as a Catholic, this is a false dilemma, as Catholics believe in the efficacy of good works. The Catholic heaven is large enough to admit the young African man, notwithstanding his beliefs, because his good works have provided a baptism of desire. And yet hell exists as a punishment for the wicked, providing Jenny with relief from the concept of spending eternity with Hitler, or with her son’s murderer.

But this isn’t really Hnath’s point, which is directed with more vigor to the question of what constitutes certainty. Reverend Paul is certain that there is no hell, because otherwise the world makes no sense. Jenny and Reverend Joshua are certain that there is, because otherwise the world makes no sense. I am certain that there is, but its membership is based on acts rather than beliefs, because otherwise the world makes no sense. What is the source of our certainty? Reverend Paul says it is the voice of God. Reverend Joshua, in a harrowing scene recounting his mother’s death, says the same. But can we distinguish God’s voice from the ordering principal which makes the world a safe place for us? Or is that who God is for us?

There are some people for whom this is not a meaningful question, and who believe there is no spiritual force which binds the Universe. They won’t like this play.

I loved it, though.

With Richard Henzel and Linda Powell. Directed by Les Waters, who says that he shares a background with Hnath as a person of faith.

D. Plays that everyone will love

If you can imagine a single play which will likely have commercial success, it is doubtlessly Dorothy Fortenberry’s Partners, which gently skewers the politically correct and the self-consciously virtuous. The partners in question are Clare (Annie Purcell) and Paul (David Ross), who are married and respectively a food specialist and an IT person in a big law office; and Brady (LeRoy McClain), and Ezra (Kasey Mahaffy), who are respectively a teacher and an I-don’t-know-what. But they are also Clare and Ezra, best friends from college days, who are, in fits and starts, trying to put together a proposal to run a food truck, full of Mexican-fusion food, throughout greater New York.

Partners cast: (l-r) Annie Purcell, Kasey Mahaffy, LeRoy McClain and David Ross (Photo: Bill Brymer)

Partners cast: (l-r) Annie Purcell, Kasey Mahaffy, LeRoy McClain and David Ross (Photo: Bill Brymer)

It is easy to spoil a comedy by giving away too much information, and among all the shows at Humana this year Partners is the one which is most likely to come to a theater near you. Suffice it to say that the great engine of the play is Clare’s self-righteousness; her willingness to put abstractions ahead of those she loves, and her inability to say what she means. It puts everything in jeopardy, and not in a good way. Mahaffy is an absolute scream in this. He inhabits his character from his hair follicles to the bottom of his tippy-toes. It is not simply that I believe him as a gay man; I believe him as Ezra, as I think I would believe him in any character he played.

Lila Neugebauer directed Partners, with dispatch and efficiency. At one point, stagehands dismantled the entire set in less than ten seconds, earning a round of applause from the savvy industry-week crowd. It broke the fictive dream, a little, but it was worth it.

After Steel Hammer, I engaged a fellow critic in conversation – how could I not, with all the provocation thrown our way? It was a pleasant way to dispatch the early afternoon, considering that my next show, Jordon Harrison’s The Grown-Up, would not start until three o’clock.

I should have checked my ticket. When I got down to the Bingham, I discovered that The Grown-Up was scheduled for 2:30 – and, worse, was now all sold out, with even standing room unavailable. There was no monitor and, since the actors were all Equity, no video either.

I was enraged – at myself. Full of unreasoning heat, no fit company for anyone, I strode out into the Louisville afternoon. It was forty-seven degrees, but I was in my shirtsleeves, boiling. I strode down West Main Street, hoping to cool off. Eventually, I began to notice tiny monuments to bats – or to baseball sluggers, each of whom had achieved his apotheoses with a bat in his hands.

Willy McCovey. Cal Ripkin. Robin Yount. Johnny Bench.

Louisville is the home of the Louisville Slugger, which, alongside the oak barrel cooperages, work to eat up all the wood supply in Kentucky. I slowed my pace; and looked at a city which was more than a theater. The world was greater than the Humana Festival, and I had to slow down and take it all in.

There are some gaudy buildings – the Kentucky Center for the Arts is one, and so is the Louisville Convention Center (featuring a monster truck rally, followed by an anime convention) – but most of the construction is comprised of four-story row houses. I pass a golden statute of David, naked, and head into – the bat museum, in honor of the Louisville Slugger.

I enter, and pay my eleven dollars (senior rate). There are museums devoted to what people do for a living – the Walter Reed Medical Museum is one, and the baseball Hall of Fame is another – but I had never before seen a museum devoted to woodworking. It’s not packed, but there are many people here, and I realize that for some, theater has a much broader definition than the one I have been applying. I watch a film clip about Johnny Bench, and then back out into the chilly afternoon.

Will my foul mood affect what I write about the play I review that evening? Should I write about it here? Fortunately, the evening’s proceedings are the Steinberg and Osborn Awards. Aberbanel is his witty self (“I realized that when Shakespeare was my age, he had been dead for fifteen years. Pity, because he might have discovered his full potential – as a theater critic.”) Jim Steinberg, representing the foundation which ponies up forty large every year to pay for these prizes, speaks with humility and grace.

Then Bill Hirschman of FloridaTheatreOnStage.com., who led the panel which considered the new plays for award, delivers a ringing endorsement of the relevance of theater. “The plays reflect themes and settings encompassing bullying, racism, sexual identity in a repressive society, a street-level view of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and genocidal civil war. Some works completely re-invented established 20th century works like The Crucible, The Seagull and The Heiress for a new century audience. They showed how technology is creating previously unimagined ethical questions and asked tough questions about how the economic downtown has challenged what people thought were their unshakeable values.”

Steinberg/ATCA recipients: Christopher Demos-Brown, Martin Zimmerman, Lauren Gunderson. Osborn recipient: Topher Payne (All photos by Charles Giuliano of berkshirefinearts.com

Steinberg/ATCA recipients: Christopher Demos-Brown, Martin Zimmerman, Lauren Gunderson. Osborn recipient: Topher Payne (All photos by Charles Giuliano of berkshirefinearts.com

He hands out the awards – to Gunderson, the top prize, and $7500 citations to Christopher Demos-Brown for Fear Up Harsh and Martin Zimmerman for Seven Spots of the Sun – two excellent plays which I hope a local theater will produce soon. Zimmerman’s play is a piece of magical realism in which a healer in a war-ravaged land confronts a soldier who has done him ill. Fear Up Harsh is the story of an Iraqi war hero whose story, and life, slowly becomes unraveled during the course of the play. I can already imagine what company I’d like to see put on these stories. I bet you can, too.

The Steinberg awardees all accept their prizes gracefully, but the high point of the evening – at least for me – is Topher Payne’s acceptance speech for his Osborn Award, which goes annually for the best new play by an emerging playwright. His brilliant Perfect Arrangement debuted in the Source Festival last summer, and Payne forthrightly acknowledged that it was the perceptiveness of critics – he mentioned two by name from his home town of Atlanta – which had made it possible for him to be a playwright. The Osborn is only $1,000, but it comes directly out of the pockets of the critics, and thus had a special cachet for Payne.

The Humana Festival topped the evening with a trio of ten-minute plays. These are usually the equivalent of Czerny exercises for playwrights, designed to limber up their skills for real plays, but the Humana ten-minutes were better than that. The bookends – Rachel Bonds’ Winter Games (with Julia Bynam and Jason Huff, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh) and Gregory Hischak’s Poor Shem (with Garman, Chung and Matthew Stadelmann, directed by Meredith McDonough) were like well-made SNL sketches, back when SNL had well-made sketches.

But the middle story, Jason Gray Platt’s Some Prepared Remarks (A History of Speech) was exquisite. It told the story of a man, growing from a child speaking before his classmates as part of an assignment into an elderly physician, afflicted by Parkinson’s, speaking to his friends at his wife’s funeral. Part of the story’s brilliance is due to its actor, Bruce McKenzie, who unerringly captured his character, from the head-rolling agitation of an eight-year-old terrified of what he might say next to the aah-aah-aah of advanced Parkinson’s. Somehow, Platt and McKenzie made this ten minutes not just a drama but the ur-drama: the lifetime of a human being. Waters directed.

Incidentally, I was able to get the script for The Grown-Up after the Festival was over – and was immediately crestfallen all over again. It was wonderful!

Cast of The Grown-up: (l-r) Matthew Stadelmann, Tiffany Villarin, Brooke Bloom and Paul Niebanck (Photo: Bill Brymer)

Cast of The Grown-up: (l-r) Matthew Stadelmann, Tiffany Villarin, Brooke Bloom and Paul Niebanck (Photo: Bill Brymer)

It recalled The Big Meal in the way that it used repertory actors to recreate time falling down gravity’s well. It has a little SF-spookiness, the way the protagonist Kai is using the same time-traveling machine we all use, only faster, but it is grounded in human values and the human personality. There are some plays I’d drive up to Baltimore to see; to see this one, I would go to Philadelphia or Richmond. Or Louisville.  ATL’s production of The Grown-Up featured Stadelman, Brooke Bloom, Paul Niebanck, Tiffany Villarin, Chris Murray, and David Ryan Smith, and was directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.

E. Plays I don’t know what they are but I liked anyway

We ended the festivities with Remix 38, a series of short plays performed by ATL’s Acting Apprentice Company. Some of them are provocative, some of them are not, but all of them are intriguing in their own way. By far (at least for me) the most intriguing was Justin Kiritzkes’ If…Then…, a narrative whose events rise and fall on the entirely unconnected question of who remains in our Guantanamo prison base. Ostensibly it is a story about a visit to a married couple (Casey Worthington and Lauren LaRocca) by the husband’s old girlfriend (Julia Bynum). But every moment of it is interrupted by actor’s asides.

“If I poke my head through the door to check up on them,” Roger explains, “then Shaker Aamer is still at Guantanamo.” He is, and he does.

The technique is intriguing, and then annoying; the narrative power is crumpled by these political diversions. “If I trip on the way out,” a waiter (Conrad Schott) explains, “then Ridah Bin Al-Yazidi is still at Guantanamo.” He leaves, stumbling over his own feet.

But then something interesting happens. The trio, tipsy and insecure, begin to plot a ménage a trios – one that depends, apparently, on the Guantanamo population.

“If I kiss her neck,” Charlotte says, “then Said Muhammad Salih Hitam is still at Guantanamo.”

“If I look into her eyes,” Roger says, “then Fahmi Salem Al-Assani is still at Guantanamo.”

“If I moan out loud,” Evelyn says, “then Sabry Mohammed is still at Guantanamo.”

And here’s the dilemma for you –which side are you on? Do you hope that these men – strangers to you, with unfamiliar names, some of whom may actually be terrorists complicit in unspeakable crimes – to be free of Guantanamo? Or do you hope that they are still in prison, so that this sensual and riveting drama can continue to play out right in front of you?

I know, I know. You’re all far too sober and responsible for that stuff. You have no desire to see these characters fall on each other, in concupiscence and rapture. But pretend you’re someone else. Pretend you’re a lusty twenty-two year old, who’s never even seen a ménage a trios, not even on TV. Use the Gunderson Filter.

Remix 38 featured Jamal Andunnasir, Rachael Balcanoff, Derek Grabner, Peregrine Heard, Jason Huff, David Jackson, Cyndii Johnson, Linsey Kite, Madison Niederhauser, Devon Nimerfroh, Daniel Rodriguez, Alex Seeley, Mirirai Sithole, Emily Stout and Zach Wymore in addition to the aforementioned actors. Ian Frank directed.

Conclusion

We are in the airport, heading back to the land of Mencken. The Gunderson Filter has been a success, and also not a success.

It is the critic’s duty to report good new work, and especially good new work by unknown playwrights. It is how we spot our Gundersons, our Johanna Adams, our Topher Paynes. But the critic loses his credibility if he hands out nothing but hosannas. You will not believe me when I praise Perfect Arrangement to the heavens if I give five stars to everybody else.

Which brings me to another subject.  Gunderson rails against the yes-or-no, five-star or one-star review so prevalent in today’s critical culture. But that is what our readers want – not you, for God’s sake; you’ve waded through nearly sixty-eight hundred words, but everybody else. We write for the bottom-liner, the weekend planner, the wordbox scanner – we write for the audience, and not the playwright or the theater artist or the custodian of the box office. We must tell them what they want to know, or they will find it elsewhere.

And, ultimately, it is not when we say yea or nay that influences the reader. It is how we describe the play. Look back to my description of Lear at the beginning of this essay. Do you think it tells you whether you’d have enjoyed the production? Do you really need to hear my say-so to decide?

But the remainder of her observations make sense to me. Theater is subjective; no matter how much theater I see, I am bringing my own beliefs and hard-wiring to the production, and if you don’t share them, you shouldn’t take my advice.

And, in addition to recognizing that your experience may be different than mine, I also should acknowledge that a production, though unsatisfactory, could get better – if, in fact, it could get better.

So my judgments – of Steel Hammer, certainly, but also of productions that I liked, like The Christians – go through that filter of awareness: there are other people who think differently.

Still, I am satisfied to know that bedrock truth remains. I am justified – indeed, required – to identify artistic failure when I see it.  And I know that brownsville song failed, utterly.

My dear bride spots a friend of ours, a theater activist whose opinion I profoundly respect. While I stand guard over the bags, Lorraine goes to have some chat.

“What did you like?” Lorraine asks.

“I liked them all,” our friend responds. “But I especially liked that brownsville song.

Comments

  1. Very thoughtful and exhaustive analysis Tim. A new standard for festival reviewing! Ms. Gunderson, in my view, wants a new play rollout like a product launch. Critics have to call them the way they see them. All new works of art suffer the same rough treatment. I have on my bookshelf a copy of “Rotten Reviews” – there are several iterations – which is a hilarious compendium of great literary works which received the worst, most dismissive notices. Perhaps the rejected playwrights of today will be ultimately vindicated. I look at a new play as a work in progress. Most get better, while others do not. We go to new plays in the hope of seeing something different (I know I do) from everything else out there. Maybe it’s so different that we don’t fully get it at the time. But others will later. I know an artist who says about his least appreciated work, “It hasn’t found the right buyer yet.” Perhaps a variant might hold for an under-appreciated new play: “It’s still looking for the right audience.”

  2. Excellent piece! I attended the Humana Festival, and I agree with all that was said in this article, particularly in regard to brownsville song. Although no doubt it was a well-intentioned piece, the level of writing, in my opinion, was not elevated enough to merit inclusion in this festival alongside truly interesting, well realized and non-cliched works, such as “Partners” or “The Christians” (for reasons thoughtfully highlighted in Mr. Treanor’s article). I am at a loss as to why this play was chosen for this festival.

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