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Theater's Old Kentucky Home : Drama: Louisville's 17th Humana Festival of New American Plays continues to develop a remarkable amount of significant work.

March 25, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On a freezing Thursday night last week, a turn-of-the-century mansion loomed above the Ohio River like a Gothic Tara. Weary travelers emerged from airport vans to be greeted by a ruddy-faced gentleman with a handlebar mustache.

"Welcome to the Humana Festival," he ceremoniously said to each of his 94 guests. "My name is Barry Bingham."

Then, the scion of Louisville's most notorious family, ex-owner of the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper and the target of scandalous bestsellers, opened his doors to Sri Lankan journalists, Hollywood entertainment scouts, South African playwrights, New York theatrical agents, a Parisian drama critic and official Cannes Film Festival translator, a Japanese performing arts correspondent, an artistic director from Bangladesh, a Slovenian radio announcer, an Egyptian stage director and one Emmy-nominated television star.

All were told to toss their coats in Bingham's bedroom, which was somewhere on the massive second floor.

"You can't miss it," said one guest.

The 17th Humana Festival of New American Plays had begun.

But much more than eccentric Southern hospitality by its board members lured this international community to the Actors Theatre of Louisville's annual monthlong marathon.

Since its first festival in 1976, when D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game" debuted here and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the riverfront theater has premiered such major American plays as "Crimes of the Heart, " "Agnes of God," "Extremities" and "Execution of Justice." In an era when most regional theaters are reluctant to stage a single original play a season, the Actors Theatre continues to develop a remarkable amount of significant new work. Now, after 17 years, the Humana Festival has evolved into the Kentucky Derby of the American theater. The converted 19th-Century bank building lobby teems like the infield on Derby Day.

The 1993 lineup proved unusually popular with both Louisville's sophisticated theater professionals and general audiences. Half of the 10 premieres were written by women. Three plays had all-black casts. Seven were politically controversial issue-plays.

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The lineup ranged from the delirious, ensemble-created "Deadly Virtues" (resembling a Greek chorus on an amphetamine killing spree) to Jose Rivera's 10-minute "Tape."

"More representatives of larger theaters came than ever before," observed Actors Theatre literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon. "But we're all sort of wondering why so many film and television people came this year."

The reason why they were in Louisville was never in doubt among the Hollywood set. Amblin Entertainment, the William Morris Agency, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Television and RHI Entertainment all had representatives here. The industry's proverbial hunger for product inspired an unprecedented feeding frenzy at the Actors Theatre.

After the applause ended for Joan Ackermann's user-friendly comedy "Stanton's Garage" (think of "Taxi" set in the South), Walt Disney Television's Janet S. Blake enthused: "This writer could write for half-hour sitcoms! 'Stanton's Garage' reminds me of 'Baghdad Cafe.' Has she written for television?"

The playwright's agent, strategically seated nearby, promptly handed a card to Blake, Disney TV's vice president of writer development and special projects. "No, she hasn't done TV," answered the agent, "but she's working on a (film) adaptation of one of her other plays."

Lynn Kaufman's "Shooting Simone," an examination of a menage a trois between Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and a wanna-be femme fatale, delighted the majority but offended a few purists. Kevin Kling's meditation on suicide, "The Ice Fishing Play," may have been the sleeper of the festival, and probably will be reprised in other regional theaters.

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The most eagerly anticipated new work was Regina Taylor's "Various Small Fires." But those hoping for a reflective play about racial integration in the style of her Emmy-nominated role as a maid on NBC's "I'll Fly Away" left the theater stunned. Taylor offered a pair of absurdist, profane one-acts.

"My primary motivation is to see how much I can get away with," Taylor explained. "I'm interested in the role of the absurd (theater) and how it relates to black people in America."

"Keely and Du," a naturalistic, overtly political study of the abortion wars, created the most debate. Written by the pseudonymous Jane Martin, its setting is a bleak basement where a pregnant woman has been handcuffed to a bed by anti-abortion activists determined to keep her from having an abortion. Watching the captive from a rocking chair is an aged volunteer (played impeccably by the underrated Anne Pitoniak).

Before the festival ended, film and television executives who had not yet seen "Keely and Du," but had heard the "buzz," were phoning the theater, requesting to meet with the author.

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