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America, the Bountiful

The Humana Festival of New American Plays balances comedies with more serious fare. This year's edition does not lack for noteworthy works.

April 03, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's no way to get to know a city.

Even if you wriggle out for a couple of hours, in search of the Louisville Slugger Museum and gift shop, attending the "visitor's weekend" edition of the Humana Festival of New American Plays affords hilariously little sense of where you are, exactly.

The annual Actors Theatre of Louisville event, the most durable of its kind nationally, might as well be happening a few hundred miles off America's coastline. For a long, play-crammed, schmooze-intensive weekend, rife with playwrights, directors, agents, film and TV development folk and various species of journalist, Louisville turns into the Kentucky Triangle, sucking hundreds of ticket-holders into its vortex without pity.

The tropical vibe was especially strong this year at the 25th Humana Festival, the first under the artistic directorship of Marc Masterson, formerly of Pittsburgh's City Theater. (Last year he succeeded 31-year Humana veteran Jon Jory.) The reason? "When the Sea Drowns in Sand," by Cuba-Florida-Woodland Hills-Manhattan transplant Eduardo Machado.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 4, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Humana Festival--Former artistic director Jon Jory headed Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival for 25 years, and ran ATL for 31 years. His tenure was incorrectly reported in Tuesday's Calendar.

A lovely and rueful comedy blending autobiography, a friendship on the verge of a love affair and the Elian Gonzalez mess, Machado's three-character piece emerged as this year's ringer. Scheduled for a commercial off-Broadway engagement this fall, it marks a significant step forward in Machado's career.

Locally that career's best known for the six-hour "Floating Island" plays, produced by the Mark Taper Forum in 1994. "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" is about a Machado-like exile, Federico (Joseph Urla), who travels from New York to Havana in 1999 in the time of Castro's "family reconciliation." He is accompanied by Fred (Ed Vassallo), ever ready with a video camera and moral support for his friend's return home to Cuba.

Federico sets out to find the family home of his well-to-do childhood, with the help of local guide Ernesto (Felix Solis), who has no love for Cuban exiles on a nostalgia trip. But Machado's play never quite goes where you think it's going. It's a tight, crafty and exceptionally eloquent play about identity politics, on every scale.

Machado had a play in the 1991 Humana Festival. "The last time I was here," he said between performances, "I didn't rewrite one word. This time, I rewrote a lot. And both times, the Actors Theatre staff backed me equally."

In all, more satisfaction and fewer headaches than he experienced at the Taper during "Floating Island." First, Machado instructs, "you have to put in how much I like Gordon Davidson, 'cause then I'll tell you the rest. But when you do a show at the Taper there's just a tremendous amount of pressure, which I've never quite understood. It's like doing a show on Broadway, with the burden of [pleasing] a large audience, and a large amount of money involved."

Machado held a reading of "When the Sea Drowns in Sand" last year at the Tiffany, directed by Amy Madigan, featuring Alfred Molina, Jimmy Smits and, seen in the Humana staging, Vassallo. Based on the Humana buzz, Machado suspects this play will travel, "partly because it's compact, let's be honest." Three actors, minimal scenic requirements, a spiky bit of recent history: It's a heady recipe.

In Louisville, director Michael John Garces guided three excellent performances. There's a hiccup in Machado's coda, a conscious leap into polemical hollering that works against the play. (It could get by capping Act 1, but it's too abrupt a tonal shift for the end of Act 2.) This isn't a major problem. Despite its rather stridently poetic title, "Sand" finds Machado going home again, rewardingly.

The Humana crop also yielded "bobrauschenbergamerica," an entertaining collage from Charles L. Mee ("The Berlin Circle," "Big Love") and director Anne Bogart. For years, Mee's collage techniques--splattering "found" texts atop other texts, theatrical and otherwise--have recalled the creations of visual artist Rauschenberg. The fit, then, is natural.

Rauschenberg grew up in a clenched Port Arthur, Texas, household, here not so much re-created as evoked imagistically. The show is a peppy physical romp, one highlight of which is the making and consumption of a jumbo-sized martini, gallons and gallons, all over a sheet of plastic covering the stage. (Two actors then use the results as an alcoholic Slip 'n Slide.) Mee's text folds chicken jokes into Manhattan Project memories, all the while hewing to the Rauschenberg visual vocabulary. If the results aren't Mee's best--they feel a bit beside the subject, rather than a reflection or refraction of it--they're fun all the same.

The festival presented four other full-length works, three commissioned by Humana: "Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness," by Mac Wellman and composer Michael Roth; Richard Dresser's dolorous comedy "Wonderful World"; "Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage," from Humana regular Jane Martin; and a non-commission from Melanie Marnich, "Quake."

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