LOUISVILLE, Ky. — "The American theater's in a ----load of trouble." That's the first thing we hear in Jane Martin's comedy, "Anton in Show Business," which serves as the jester among sociopaths in the 24th Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Martin's character, a stage manager, quickly goes on to say that nonprofit theaters, a group that includes Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Humana Festival's producer, have "degenerated" into "dying medieval fiefdoms and arrogant baronies producing small-cast comedies, cabaret musicals, mean-spirited new plays and the occasional deconstructed classic, which everybody hates."
At lines like these, the Humana audience--hundreds of theatrical and filmmaking and television and newspaper people from both coasts and points between--laughed like hell. We're all going down together. But if we can grab the next "Gin Game" en route, why not?
A comedy about a motley crew doing Chekhov's "Three Sisters" in San Antonio, "Anton in Show Business" wasn't the best work of this year's Humana Festival, which continues through Saturday. It was, however, the most revealing--odd, considering the pseudonymity of its author.
For years, theater insiders and various wild-guessers have assumed that Jane Martin ("Keely and Du," "Jack and Jill") is Jon Jory, the producing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, as well as the force behind America's most visible and durable new-play festival.
If Jon is, in fact, Jane, it's tempting to see "Anton in Show Business" as Jory's personal farewell, as he leaves his 24-year-old festival in the rear-view mirror. He has run ATL for 31 years in all. Jory relocates this year to Seattle, where he'll teach acting and directing at the University of Washington. His ATL successor will be named in early autumn.
Heartfelt sentiment regarding Jory's departure ran rampant all weekend. Still: Nothing undercuts a sentimental occasion like the threat of sexual violence.
In Stephen Belber's "Tape," a case of unreported high school assault is revisited 10 years later by three uneasy friends in a Lansing, Mich., motel room. "No. 11 (Blue and White)," by Alexandra Cunningham, takes its inspiration from the real-life case of convicted rapist Alex Kelly, a privileged Connecticut high school senior.
"Touch," by Toni Press-Coffman, deals with a young widower's grief following the kidnapping, probable assault and death of his wife. Even "Anton in Show Business," which is self-referential enough to make jokes about its self-referentiality, throws in a rape reference or two. It's hard not to take them as references to the plays seen on all three ATL stages.
Near the end of the 2 1/2-day Humana "visitors' weekend," some theatergoers looked as if they'd just run the gauntlet at the Tailhook convention.
The ravishment theme persisted in the 2000 Humana fest's most striking offering, Charles L. Mee's "Big Love." Here, however, subjugation and ravagement took on proportions at once cosmic and intensely personal.
Mee, a historian-turned-playwright, riffs on what may be the earliest surviving play of the Western canon, "The Suppliant Women" by Aeschylus. In it, 50 Grecian brides about to be taken by force by 50 grooms flee their homeland and seek refuge at an Italian villa. The men come after them. The women decide to organize rather than agonize.
"Big Love" isn't a conventional problem play, and it's far better for its stylistic breadth. In a terrific production directed by Les Waters (a UC San Diego faculty member), Mee's collision of ancient Greece and contemporary American idioms played wonderfully.
In his recent, eloquent memoir "A Nearly Normal Life," about growing up and living with polio, Mee writes that he prefers plays "that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My own plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life." The Humana production felt like life, too.
A few years back, the notion of a Mee script at a Humana Festival would've sounded like a punch line. The festival started small, and relatively straight. Jory & Co. broke it in at a time when few theaters spent a dime on new-play development.
Humana's early successes included "The Gin Game" and "Crimes of the Heart," two of the most-produced American titles of the last quarter-century. Very quickly, Jory's festival grew, as did its reputation for easygoing comedies and realism-with-a-message exports.
For a time the festival commissioned famous writers not known for plays (William F. Buckley, Jimmy Breslin), took a lot of guff for it, and stopped. More recently, Humana's tastes have broadened to include adventurous directors such as Anne Bogart, whose "Cabin Pressure" (an Humana alum) arrives at UCLA later this month. The current Humana Festival included a new Bogart enterprise, an Orson Welles fantasia titled "War of the Worlds," written by Los Angeles-based Naomi Iizuka.
Seven Full-Length Works Part of the Lineup