A Blitzkrieg Review Of The Humana Festival — Via Text Message
Sometimes there are just too many good things worth doing.
The Humana Festival of New American Plays provokes this dilemma virtually every year, and this was no exception.
But instead of sulking in the face of the challenge, we decided to try something new. We sent arts correspondents Tara Anderson and Ashlie Stevens to blitzkrieg the closing weekend. They had plays to see, scripts to discuss, and award ceremonies to attend.
Rather than review all that, we decided to have them talk about it in real time — via text message — with each other. What follows is their actual text conversation at the Humana Festival this weekend, edited lightly for clarity. —Stephen George, executive editor
- "Cardboard Piano," written by Hansol Jung. It's set in war-torn northern Uganda and tells the story of a missionary's daughter and her love affair with a local woman, exploring the ideas of redemption and loss.
- "For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday” by Sarah Ruhl, about a Catholic family of five siblings during their father's passing. Read our review.
- "This Random World" by Steven Dietz. It's a series of interconnected storylines, full of near misses and serendipitous coincidences.
- "Residence” by Laura Jacqmin. This play tells the story of a medical equipment saleswoman at an extended-stay hotel, and the relationships she forms there. Read our review.
- "Wondrous Strange," the annual showcase for acting apprentices, written by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman, which riffs on Kentucky ghost stories and folklore.
- "Wellesley Girl" by Brendan Pelsue. It's set in a post-apocalyptic America 400 years in the future. Read our review.
Saturday, 11:03 a.m.
Tara Anderson: Let’s go ahead and start this text convo now. I’m headed downtown to watch three plays today.
Ashlie Stevens: Fantastic! What are you seeing? I’ll be down at 9 for The Ten-Minute Plays.
I’m seeing “Cardboard Piano” first. I saw “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” last night, for the second time. What did you think of that one?
I thought “For Peter Pan” was really beautiful (though a little clunky in spots). I tell people that each year for Humana Fest, I have one play that makes me sob. Last year it was “Dot” by Colman Domingo, this year it was “For Peter Pan.” What did you think?
Yeah, it’s a tearjerker for sure. I heard lots of sniffles around me, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just because it’s allergy season in Kentucky. I love so many things about it. I agree about a little clunkiness in spots, mainly the transitions between the sections. But I love that it’s telling a story about older people, which we don’t see very much in our culture.
Exactly. It was a little disconcerting when the full marching band comes out immediately following the father’s death. However, I also loved the different surprise elements: flight, the dog coming out on set, etc. Definitely added to the whimsy!
Saturday, 1:03 p.m.
Intermission of “Cardboard Piano.” I have some thoughts. I spent about a month in Uganda 10 years ago. I’m not an expert on the place by any means, but I know a little. These Ugandan characters speak like Americans with Ugandan accents, not like any Ugandans I met. Everything about the production is so good — performances, sets, lighting — but I have some real problems with the script. We’ll see what the second act brings.
Check in after the final act. I’m curious about your thoughts on the whole production.
Indeed. I want to hear your thoughts then, too.
Saturday, 2:22 p.m.
Ok, I have 15 minutes before the next show, Steven Dietz's “This Random World.” The short version of my thoughts on “Cardboard Piano” is that I was so angry at the white character that I could barely pay attention to anything else. She made everything all about her. I liked the second act better but it also felt like it ended because it just ran out of time. I have big issues with how the developing world is shown onstage.
The second act was stronger, I agree, though not enough to redeem Act 1. Set design was a strong point, though I feel like the entire production was striving for some kind of authenticity it couldn’t achieve because of shallow areas in the script. And have fun in “This Random World!” It was my second favorite play.
Saturday, 4:02 p.m.
Just out of “This Random World.” Entertaining, engaging, funny, well done, and yet ultimately didn’t get me. Kind of like a Diet Coke or something. Does that make sense? I’m usually not this critical. Also feeling some emotional whiplash, going from one play to the next.
Have you seen “Residence” yet? It was my absolute favorite.
Saturday, 9 p.m.
Just saw “Residence.” Definitely my favorite of the day. Someone I know said it read like a TV pilot, maybe like that was a bad thing. But I thought it was totally engaging and very real. Postpartum depression is a real thing and it was depicted with such compassion here.
Saturday, 11:48 p.m.
I can see that vibe. Just got home from the awards ceremony + Ten Minute Plays. Will fill you in in the a.m.! Sleep tight!
Sunday, 8:38 a.m.
Morning! Thanks to the ACTA/Steinberg awards, I have a whole list of plays I can’t wait to see. $25,000 award went to Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” which he described as a “sex comedy about my parents ... who are refugees.” (He then went on to give this great speech about Trump, which I’m hoping someone recorded.)
Wow, that sounds amazing! What else?
Then, fun note: Jen Silverman, who wrote “Roommate” from last year’s Humana Fest (her festival debut) won a $7,000 prize for her play “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane.” Steven Dietz (of "This Random World") won an additional prize for his play “Bloomsday.” They all sounded fantastic!
Then came the Ten Minute Plays … The second selection, “Coffee Break” (pictured atop the page), was definitely the most enjoyable of the three. It was witty. The first and third selections seemed like SNL on a slow night.
Sunday, 10:15 a.m.
Oooooh girl. SNL on a slow night is pretty bad. What are you seeing today? I’m on my way to “Wondrous Strange” right now.
I’m actually all caught up after seeing “Cardboard Piano” on Friday! “Wondrous Strange” is eerie. I think you’ll really enjoy it! Did you see “At the Vanishing Point” last year? It has elements like that.
Sunday, 12:05 p.m.
“Wondrous Strange” was really fun. I’m not a horror movie person at all, but I enjoyed the creepy stories. The apprentice showcase is always one of my favorites. It’s a nice contrast to the smaller plays with three or four actors. They’re always so energetic and committed. And it’s great to see something that’s more of a spectacle.
Okay, great! So what are your top three at this point?
As of now, I’d say “For Peter Pan,” “Residence,” and “Wondrous Strange.” Although nothing has totally blown me away so far. I feel like other years have been stronger, to be honest.
Agreed! I was telling someone this morning that I can recount most productions from past years in detail; this year, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do that. I have a deep wish to just sit down and watch “The Glory of the World” or “The Christians.” (You were in that one, right?) Something that grips you in the moment, but stays with you too. I can say though, from The Tens, there is a pretty memorable line (that I never thought I’d hear in my life): “There is a vagina in my latte.” That’s something I won’t soon forget.
Yes, I was in the choir for “The Christians” and did maybe 10 performances. The greatest pleasure was getting to hear that play (most of it) over and over. That was definitely one of my favorites of recent years. "Wellesley Girl" is next.
Let me know what you think of “Wellesley Girl!” Spoiler: Hank, the robot, is so lovable.
Sunday 3:57 p.m.
I ran into a friend in the lobby, and we agreed that we would have enjoyed a whole play about Hank the robot! I found “Wellesley Girl” a little baffling and a bit hard to follow, but mostly enjoyable. I appreciated the sense of imagination. I also liked that there was a diverse cast in a story that wasn’t really about race.
"Wellesley Girl" seemed flat to me. I know it was going for political satire, but ultimately it fell short for me because a lot of the characters felt like stock characters with no major depth (the blustering politician, the emotional activist, the detached Supreme Court judge.) I want a "Wicked"-style reboot where we see Hank’s side of the story.
Any closing thoughts? We are so fortunate here in Louisville that the production values and the performances are generally so excellent, then we can talk about the plays themselves. It’s pretty much a given at Actors Theatre that there will be terrific actors, and that every production will look and sound fantastic. In general, I thought this year’s festival wasn’t as strong as past years; it lacked that breakout amazing can’t-stop-thinking-about-it play that you have tell everybody about. That’s a pretty high bar to reach, though, and I also know that the plays we’ve seen aren’t necessarily finished: A lot of things can change after the first production. I’m still grateful for this festival and for the opportunity to see new work, right here in my own hometown.
I agree. So thankful that Louisville has been the home of this festival for 40 years. The amount of national arts-world attention that is placed on the city each year during this time is just incredible — and I’m already curious about what next year’s Humana Fest is going to bring.