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O Pioneers! The Slant Culture Theatre Festival Opens

The Slant Culture Theatre Festival opened over the weekend with a full slate of productions, workshops, special guests and events (read the overview). Five Louisville theater companies joined together to produce a repertory festival featuring five mainstage plays and about a dozen special events. I attended Saturday and Sunday to see all five of the big productions and some guest performances. This scrappy festival has the potential to become one of the most important annual arts events in the city, and this weekend the pioneer energy was palpable throughout the Walden Theatre building. As venues go, Walden is nice and small, so moving between the larger Nancy Niles Sexton theater on the first floor and the intimate, 35-seat Alt Space on the second floor is easy to manage, even during tight transitions between shows. There's a bar set up in the lobby, where musicians like Justin Lewis set up and play for folks gathering during breaks between shows. But you have to build in time to linger. If, like me, you go on a marathon quest to see as many shows as possible in one evening, you won't see much of the lobby because curtain times are stacked close together and none of the shows have intermissions. And if, like me, you miss your one chance to hit up the food truck parked outside, know that Spinelli's is a close walk up the street for a quick slice of pizza and Baxter Station is available down the block for a more leisurely break. On Saturday, I picked up tickets for Walden's "Salvation Road," Savage Rose Classical Theatre's "The Man With the Flower in His Mouth," Le Petomane's "5 Things," Louisville Improvisor's "Buy the Book" and special guest Typecast Publishing's "Scuffletown." Whew. Written by D.W. Gregory, "Salvation Road" is about three teens who hit the road to find a sister who's gone missing in a religious cult. Performed by Walden's teen acting students, "Salvation Road" is a nice showcase for the up-and-coming actors in the company, though if you're used to seeing young adults play teenagers on stage and screen, it's a bit of an adjustment to watch actual fifteen-year-olds working. At times the play lingered too long in the "telling" mode, and a sympathetic nun character functioned more as a knowledge delivery system than a three-dimensional character. The emotional arc of the play isn't resolved as well as it could be, but it does offer its teen actors meaty and age-appropriate contemporary roles (Chris Lockhart as the mellow Duffy gets all of the laughs, which end up more powerful than the pathos in this context). After a quick pizza break, I hit up the Alt Space for the first time for Savage Rose's production of Luigi Pirandello's "The Man With the Flower in His Mouth." The intimate space is perfect for this surreal one-act dialog between two men passing the evening in an all-night train station café. The play is quietly poetic, and  Tad Chitwood (the title character) and Gerry Rose (The Peaceful Customer) enjoy a rattling chemistry that keeps us emotionally off-kilter throughout the entire arresting 30 minutes. I had a very quick turnaround between shows, but I was able to slip into Le Petomane's "5 Things" into the back of the Nancy Niles Sexton seats during their opening scene. I saw this show last summer and it remains one of my all-time favorite Le Petomane shows (that's saying something). The members of the ensemble create their original shows together, and the result is funny, musical, educational and a bit tear-jerky at the end.This one springs from what sounds like the beginning of a joke: a record store clerk, an independent bookseller and a video store clerk all walk into the unemployment line (stop me if you've heard this before). Greg Maupin (records), Abigail Bailey Maupin (books) and Kyle Ware (movies) select their top five all-time favorites to keep them company on the proverbial desert island, pulling their offerings from the magic baby pool to which they pray. It's weird, it's funny, and it's very, very smart. Original musical numbers abound (the soundtrack is available online), and not only do we learn why Kurosawa is such an important influence on film, we learn about genres like mid-century surrealism and terms like counterpoint and epistolary. And for a play about why we must cherish tangible media in the face of its endangerment, it's not heavy-handed at all. After another short break, I headed back into the theater for the first half of the Improvisor's "Buy the Book." Yep, I'm the person who leaves halfway through a show to go to another show. But with improv comedy, it's not like missing the end affects your enjoyment of the beginning, and Chris Mattingly's "Scuffletown" show was a one-night-only production and it's impossible to sneak into or out of the Alt Space. "Buy the Book" features local authors reading portions of their books (Saturday night's was Barry Bernson reading from his broadcasting career memoir) that are then interpreted to wacky ends by the improv company. Because it is currently en vogue in critical writing to reveal one's biases, I will admit that improv makes me very, very nervous. I am in awe of the actors' bravery and willingness to fail big, but watching it just fills me with anticipatory dread. Will this be the scene that kills them? The improvisors take Bernson's memoir in places he likely never imagined—to the Great Wall of China, to sleepaway camp with "Friday the 13th"'s Jason Voorhees, and every show is unique. Other authors coming up are John Boel and Tom Owen (please report back on what they do with "The History of Pigs in Louisville"). Upstairs, Typecast Publishing, a boutique literary press headquartered here in Louisville, presented "Scuffletown," a night of words and Bluegrass banjo music by poet Chris Mattingly. Mattingly's work is a tonic for those weary of prettied-up, whimsical poems. His poems reclaim vernacular language (his ode to "ain't" as a meditative hillbilly ohm stands out) and the characters in his poems are crumbling ruins, people beaten down by life and work who snatch moments of beauty when and where they can. Plus, the man plays a mean banjo. Again, the intimate Alt Space worked well for this small show, and kudos to the festival producers for arranging for the right-size venue for each production. I came back the next day to see the remount of Theatre [502]'s "The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska." Directed by Gil Reyes, this was [502]'s very first show, but a brand-new cast is worth seeing even if you caught it the first time last summer. It's a big-concept show rendered in small, personal strokes: in this town, a woman's first love has the right to challenge her fiancé to a public debate for her hand, and the woman's selection at the end of the debate is legally binding, even if that means she has to marry a guy who still uses a Nintendo-based taxonomy to make sense of his world.Courtney (Emily Hyberger) is engaged to James (Michael Mayes), who's rich, successful, confident and likes to surf. But her trainwreck of a first boyfriend Scooner (Zachary Burrell) wants to make one last-ditch attempt at winning her back, despite all of the empirical evidence against his suitability. Thomas (Corey Music) is Scooner's best friend and referee for the debate. Depending on your sensibilities, Scooner is either an endearing underdog or a lucky near-miss, and your opinion will end up mattering more than you might expect. As I found out, it's possible to see a lot in a weekend, and I could have made much more use of my pass had I been free all day on Saturday and Sunday. It's pretty good value—$55 gets you an all-access week-long pass, and even if you only see the shows I saw, that shakes out to about $9 per production. After a short break, the festival resumes Wednesday and runs through Sunday evening. A full list of remaining events is online, including nightly afterparties at venues around town.