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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, April 10, 2000
 Lost Souls & Losers at Humana Festival
KENTUKY NEO-CLASSIC--Former Bank now Sarah Shallenberger Brown Lobby of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
 Rape Obsessions
 Stephen Belber's "Tape"
 Alexandra Cunningham's "No. 11 (Blue and White)"
 Toni Press-Coffman's "Touch"
 Charles Mee's "Big Love"
 Show-Biz Obsessions
 Jane Martin's "Anton in Show Business"
 Naomi Iizuka & Anne Bogart's "War of the Worlds"
 Playwrights' & Apprentices' Showcase: "Back Story"
 Winning Ten-Minute Plays
 Naomi Wallace's "Standard Time"
 Tina Howe's "The Divine Fallacy"
 David Ives' "Arabian Nights"
 AT&T Eavesdropping—The Phone Plays
 Visualizing New Plays
 Big Week for American Theatre Critics
 Next Summer in Ashland/This Fall in Denver
 Louisville's Alternative Theatres
 Stage One's "Ben Franklin's Apprentice"
 Roundtable's "Sweet Evening Breeze"
 Pleiades' "The Road to Hell Is Paved"
 Actors' Guild of Lexington's "Teddy's Piece"
 Bunbury's "Salvage Yard"
 Necessary Theatre's "The Lights"
 The Comedy Caravan
 African-American Theatre's "Flyin' West"
 Derby Dinner Theatre's "Another Summer"
 Horse Cave Theatre's Summer Festival
 "Dead Eye Boy" at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park
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For a selection of Glenn Loney's previous columns, click here.
New Plays for a New Century:
Lost Souls & Losers at 24th Humana FestivalThe days of Gods & Heroes on stage have long since passed. Naturalists and Realists banished them to the wings. And the Modernists later sent them to the archives.
Arthur Miller gave us Tragedy & The Common Man. Man may indeed be the Measure of All Things. But what kind of Generic Man has become our yardstick?
It's not just a matter of the democratization of the modern theatre that encourages playwrights to avoid the lives of the rich, famous, and powerful.
In an age when the Lowest Common Denominator rules, depictions of the Lower Depths and their trailer-court and homeless-shelter denizens guarantee the widest possible audiences. And often at the lowest levels of understanding, taste, and discrimination.
Sensations and wallows in squalor have replaced sensitive, powerful dramatic analyses of the Human Condition.
It's no longer surprising in a New Play Festival to note that young playwrights seem to have gleaned most of their experience and understanding of contemporary life from watching TV or reading tabloid headlines.
After all, the most that most of these eager budding O'Neills and Mamets can hope for is a contract for a hit TV series. Or a major motion-picture, preferably with lots of Sex and Violence.
Writing exclusively for the theatre—especially the so-called "commercial" theatre—is an act of almost historically quaint dedication. The Big Bucks are elsewhere. And the Living Theatre is a cruel mistress.
Rape Obsessions—At the Humana Festival recently, a number of the new plays—mounted by the Actors Theatre of Louisville—seemed inspired by tab heads and the 6 PM News. Rape, in a variety of situations, was a dominant theme.
Is this a playwriting trend we should be worrying about? Especially Date-Rape?
You could say that even Eugene O'Neill had a go at the subject in "Moon for the Misbegotten." But that's a stretch. He preferred to pair his lusting men with damaged women or fast floozies—as in "Ah, Wilderness!"
But the days of philosophical misogynist playwrights—with Woman as either Virgin or Whore—are past, as well as the time of Gods & Heroes.
Now, it's off to the motel-room, the condo, or the trailer-court for a graphic Slice-of-Low-Life.
Stephen Belber's "Tape"The tape in question is one secretly recorded by Vince, as he gets his old college chum Jon to confess that he forced Amy—Vince's former girlfriend—to have sex way back when.
Jon [Stephen Kunken] has come to Lansing to screen his promising new Indie film at the festival. He's on the verge of a big breakthrough. Scum-bum Vince [Dominic Fumusa], now a druggie and dealer, sets Jon up.
He's even invited Amy [Erica Yoder], now a Lansing Assistant DA, to his motel-room to force a confrontation which could ruin Jon.
As staged by Brian Jucha, there's a homoerotic subtext in Vince's vindictiveness toward Jon.
Frankly, although the actors admirably created their characters—and played them with power—I didn't find these conflicted young people or their problems very compelling.
Oedipus and Electra had real problems.
Alexandra Cunningham's "No. 11 (Blue and White)"
You have surely read about this in the newspapers? The popular high-school athlete who brutally forces attractive coeds to have sex with him?
DANGEROUS TEEN ATHLETE--Lauren Klein as mother, with Blair Singer as jock rapist in "No. 11 (Blue and White." Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
Then they are either too ashamed or confused to confide in adults or chums who can help them. If they do share their guilty secrets, they run the very real risk of being called liars or being ostracized outright.
In Alexandra Cunningham's taut drama, Reid Callahan [Blair Singer] is the jaunty jock who disses his ditzy mother [Lauren Klein]. He is both Cock of the Walk and out of control.
Nonetheless, even in disgrace, he's still strongly supported by his coach [William McNulty], who needed Reid to win big for the school. Despite his sexual depradations, this is entirely understandable in an America where Winning Is Everything!
If his sport had been football or basketball, this might have had more dramatic resonance. Unfortunately, Reid is a winner at Lacrosse, a pussy-sport.
Brian Mertes directed a youthful cast including Savannah Haske, Christy Collier, Jessica Wortham, and Shawna Joy Anderson.
Toni Press-Coffman's "Touch"
We don't get to see the rape in "Touch." Nor do we even see its supposedly lovely and loving victim, Zoë.
IF THOSE STONES COULD TALK--Rocks behind Dominic Fumusa & Stephen Kunken conceal murdered rape-victim in " Touch." Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
Avoidance of the first—despite its obvious appeal for the Bread-and-Circuses mass-audience—shows rare restraint. Perhaps the playwright has heard of that old classic dictum about Scenes of Horror being kept offstage?
But it would have been interesting to get to know Zoë before her violent rape and murder. That would surely have added power to the great sense of loss her baffled husband Kyle [Stephen Kunken] continually shares with the audience.
Ms. Press-Coffman uses the monologue-aria entirely too much, however. This is not a satisfactory substitute for actually dramatizing plot-events. It becomes more like Story Theatre.
If you have too much story to tell in two hours, how about cutting to the chase and concentrating on the movement to climax and catharsis?
When Zoë's raped body is discovered under a pile of stones on a reservation, she has an enigmatic smile of her face. Not a grimace of pain or horror.
This maddens Kyle to the point of confronting one of her rapist-killers in prison. He wants to know why she was smiling. Unfortunately, this potentially provocative scene was also not dramatized.
Kyle is an astronomer, which does provoke some enthusiastically delivered—but poetically limp—astral similes and heavenly metaphors. Kyle really misses her. So did the audience.
Central to their relationship was Zoë's failure to grasp the essentials of the Big Bang Theory. Apparently, their big bangs at home were very fulfilling, for Kyle starts banging a Heart-of-Gold prostitute so that he can begin to feel again.
Mladen Kiselov staged with an inimitable Eastern European sensibility, honed at the Moscow Art Theatre and the Bulgarian National Theatre in Sofia. He was strongly assisted by cast-members Joanna Glushak, Kaili Vernoff, and Dominic Fumusa.
Too bad he didn't have a Zoë on hand as well!
Charles L. Mee's "Big Love"
"Big Love," an Attic Greek Tragedy transformed by Mee into antic farce, was a Big Hit of the Humana Festival. But it's not exactly "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
50 BRIDES FOR 50 BROTHERS--Unwilling brides in Charles Mee's "Big Love," based on Aeschylean tragedy. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
In 492 BC—when it was first performed in Athens at the Festival of Dionysus—that grand old playwright Aeschylus called it "The Suppliants."
Classic tragedy was taking form, growing out of the Dionysian Dithyrambs—danced and chanted odes in honor of the god. These were performed by choruses of 50 men and 50 boys, chosen from various districts of Athens.
That's obviously the reason King Danaus had 50 daughters, pursued for bridal and breeding purposes by the 50 sons of King Aegyptus. They flee to Argos for protection from the young Egyptian brutes.
No Marriage Without Love, they insist.
Making costumes for 100 actors—even if they brought stuff from home—was too much of a challenge. Especially as the play would be performed only once.
So Aeschylus wisely reduced later choruses to 12 men. No women were allowed to perform, of course. Sophocles raised the number to 15, as you can have more varied dance-patterns with that number.
Charles Mee's hilarious adaptation reduced the number of onstage daughters drastically. And not just because his version was staged in the compact Victor Jory Theatre—a box with stadium-seating on three sides.
The show opens sexsationally as the lovely and sensuous Lydia strips naked to take a bubble-bath in a tub under tree-boughs. Carolyn Baeumler, who plays Lydia, was most recently seen in Manhattan as the seductive star of Mae West's banned drama, "Sex."
Lydia and her sisters have docked their yacht at what they believe to be a luxury Italian coastal hotel. They are fleeing unwanted Greek bridegrooms.
This is not exactly a date-rape situation. But the girls regard the forced nuptials as mass rape.
Actually, the villa is not a hotel at all. It's the estate of a wealthy old Italian family.
A selection of the lovely sisters—not all fifty—all in bridal veils and gowns, enter and discard some of their accessories.
An aged crone, the Matriarch of the Italian Clan, describes her own sons as she sorts healthy and rotten tomatoes. The bad ones get smashed on the spongey floor.
There's a good reason for the whoopee-cushion floormat. When the young Greek stallion-grooms rush in to claim their brides, forced weddings seem imminent.
There's even a tall-tiered wedding-cake—with frosting to smear on faces. But the sisters suddenly stab their would-be husbands to bloody death in a comical slaughter.
Save one, who really loves her intended husband. Has she betrayed the compact with her sisters? Have they defended themselves justly? Or are they murderers?
The old crone sits in judgment. Love Conquers All. Happy Ending—except for the tux-clad corpses.
Oh well. Win a few, Lose a few!
Les Waters staged, with an attractively minimal setting by Actors Theatre house-designer Paul Owen. The ingenious Owen has now designed scores of shows for the three stages of Actors Theatre. As the Jory and the Bingham don't have proscenium stages—with 3/4 and 4/4 surround-seating—set-props, costumes, and lighting often have to make the entire design statement.
Show-Biz Obsessions—Theatre-pieces which are self-referential can run the risk of being less accessible to the general public. This is especially noticeable when there are theatre-people among the spectators, guffawing and falling out of their seats. While the rest of the viewers are wondering what is so damned funny.
Jane Martin's "Anton in Show Business"
Fortunately, Jane Martin's riotous show-biz farce, "Anton in Show Business," is readily accessible on several levels, including the sub-textual.
"THREE SISTERS" IN SAN ANTONIO--Monica Koskey, Gretchen Lee Krich, and Caitlin Miller long for Broadway more than Moscow in "Anton in Show Business." Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
The title is a pun as well, for the play deals with a spectacularly doomed production of Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" at a regional theatre in San Antonio. Better known as San Antón.
Every cliché about Putting On A Play and Artistic Temperament is raised to new heights of hilarity.
The one thing missing is any reference to San Antonio's immense Hispanic population. There was a big Hispanic Theatre Festival in October, so this omission cannot be based on their presumed lack of interest in the theatre. Injecting some Chicano character comedy would enrich the present heady mix.
A celebrated but insecure TV star needs to demonstrate she can really act in a real play, in order to get a major screen role. She's the lodestone for the entire production.
Her sisters on stage are an over-eager Texas novice and an all-too-disillusioned East Village playwright. Chekhov's famous trio longed for Moscow. These women lust for Broadway.
But they are also, almost unconsciously, in search of The Meaning of Life, so Chekhov's dark comedy is a metaphor for Martin's farce.
Ghastly auditions, powerful patronage, funding woes, fussy designers, and flamboyant directors are all artfully mocked.
My favorite was the furious African-American Woman Director from the Theatre of Black Rage. Her concept was to omit Chekhov's lines entirely.
American Theatre Critics, who were on hand for the Humana Festival, had just experienced a panel in which a very forceful African-American Woman Director had charged them with the absolute necessity of Doing Their Homework before coming to review Black Theatre.
Had Jane Martin's alter-ego, Actors Theatre Artistic Director Jon Jory, had a run-in with this powerful personality?
JON JORY/ACTORS THEATRE LOUISVILLE--Is this man really prize-winning playwright Jane Martin? Photo: ©John Nation/2000.
Before members of ATCA came to Louisville, it was hinted that we'd at least find out the true identify of the award-winning Jane Martin.
Her plays premiere at Actors Theatre, staged by John Jory. And she's the only playwright who never has a photo in the program.
Some friends who know Jory and Actors Theatre well insist that they've heard many of the best lines in this play from Jory's own lips.
When he moves on to the Seattle Rep—after three decades in Louisville—it will be interesting to see whether Jane Martin begins to write about Microsoft and salmon spawning in the Columbia River.
One wonderful touch in this play—especially for the critics in the audience—was a critic-character, also in the audience, who continually interrupted the actors with questions not only critics would like to have answered.
At the close, she wondered if what they were doing on stage—and in regional theatre in general—wasn't like BEATING A DEAD HORSE [pause] FROM THE INSIDE?
That's a question worth asking, now that younger intellects [and potential audiences of the future] are diving down into the Internet and not coming up for air.
Despite the insider-jokes in this show, they are so well orchestrated and played that you didn't have to be a drama-major to get most of them.
What some spectators did not immediately get was that all roles, male and female, were played by women: Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Monica Koskey, Gretchen Lee Krich, Annette Helde, Chick Reid, Caitlin Miller, and Stacey Swift. Wow!
Jane Martin's comedy is in the grand tradition of "The Royal Family," "The Torchbearers," and "Noises Off." It should have many successful, rewarding productions.
Naomi Iizuka & Anne Bogart's "War of the Worlds"
At least we did not have a male in Diana Vreeland drag in a shopping-cart in Anne Bogart's latest SITI Company performance-art experiment. She's a great favorite of Brian McMaster, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Festival, so it's no surprise that this show is scheduled for the Scots Capital.
QUIT YOUR HORSIN' ORSON!--Scene from reprise of Orson Welles' career in "War of the Worlds." Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
Despite the provocative title, this is actually an Orson Welles Life & Career Collage. It does begin with an invocation of that infamous radio-drama, based on an H. G. Welles fiction.
I am old enough to remember that broadcast, with Martians invading New Jersey. As radio was our only source of entertainment out on the ranch, I had listened to the repeated announcements about the forthcoming show, so I knew—unlike thousands of frantic listeners—that it was not a real news-report.
In the California Mother Lode, we were far too rural and removed to know anything of Orson Welles and John Houseman's Federal Theatre productions. But we certainly did manage to see their Mercury Theatre actors in such films as "The Magnificent Ambersons" and the crowning achievement, "Citizen Kane."
Bogart, her playwright, and her ensemble explore Welles' major and minor works in fragmented fashion. Largely as spoken listings.
This is really an Insider Show. As with African-American Theatre, you might want to Do Your Homework before you go. Or read a short bio at the very least.
That's not to say this is not visually interesting. Its design and staging are the most compelling aspects, save for the outsize vitality of the Orson of Stephen Webber.
Designers Neil Patel [sets], James Schuette [costumes], Mimi Jordan Sherin [lighting], and Darron L. West [sound] all deserve kudos for helping this collage to come alive.
Especially effective were a scooting cinema-screen and a chrome rectangular frame also on wheels.
On his deathbed, Welles is reported to have uttered only one word: "Thorn." One thematic thread of this show is to discover what he may have meant.
As Citizen Kane also uttered only one word on his deathbed—"Rosebud"—I thought Welles might have been referring to the thorns which come with the roses.
But, as this show suggests, he may have said instead: "Thorne." This could be a veiled reference to those magical miniature interiors Mrs. Thorne created for the Chicago Institute of Art.
Complete in every period detail of decoration and furnishing, these tiny chambers also have windows which look out on enchanting gardens and mysterious distant vistas. Each is a World of Illusion waiting for its actors to enter.
Welles created such worlds, peopled them, and set all the elements in motion.
But the Master Showman was also exceedingly self-destructive, in both life and art. Critic Kenneth Tynan—in a verbal portrait of Welles entertaining bystanders in a bar—noted that Welles had used up his genius in wonderfully imaginative small-talk.
Playwrights' & Acting Apprentices' Showcase—
Mini-Dramas Inspired by Joan Ackermann's "Back Story":Crafted by Ackermann, Courtney Baron, Neena Beber, Constance Congden, Jon Klein, Shirley Lauro, Craig Lucas, Eduardo Machado, Donald Margulies, Susan Miller, John Olive, Tanya Palmer, David Rambo, Edwin Sanchez, Adele Edling Shank, Mayo Simon, & Val Smith.
Joan Ackermann's narrative, "Back Story," is the basis for this program of short playlets. The various authors—some of them very well known Humana Festival playwrights—either dramatized events from the narrative or provided linkages between plot developments.
'BACK STORY" BACK-UP--Vignette from Humana Festival's multi-author meditation on Joan Ackermann's fiction. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
Ethan and Ainsley—and their mother Gloria—have been abandoned by their dad. They cope, survive, and grow up over some twenty years. A brochure outlining the events in the original narrative was very helpful in preparing to watch the plays.
Individually, not many can stand alone, even as acting-exercises. But in the over-arching framework, they have a cumulative power.
My favorite involved Ethan in leading tours through Herman Melville's home in Pittsfield, MA. Not quite as devastating as Maggie Smith in "Lettice & Lovage," but amusing enough.
But this is another one of those Common Man epics, with many of the sequences more appropriate to TV sitcoms or domestic dramas. Frankly, I really didn't care about Ainsley or Ethan's fatherless lives, which, one assumes, is what the playwrights were trying to help the audience achieve: "Cider House Rules" Quality-Sharing.
The Winning Three Ten-Minute Plays:Just as it's much more difficult to play comedy than tragedy really well, so also is it easier to write a long play than a really effective short one. The Humana 10-minute limit is quite a challenge.
Some of these short plays in past seasons have been little more than sketches or extended jokes. Then again, some have seemed endless and pointless, even in less than ten minutes.
Naomi Wallace's "Standard Time"Wallace loves the Lower Depths and the Tobacco Roads of American Life. Her "Trestle at Pope Lick Creek," however, was rather special in its revelation of rural teens in hard times.
But that was a full-length Humana drama. In this brief-life monologue, a teen thug in prison explains why he had to kill his girl-friend after taking her car so he could drive wild and free. Or whatever.
But, before he terminated her, they used to zoom around with him riding on a stolen saddle strapped atop the car. Alternative Lifestyles—that kind of thing?
The official program summary describes the play thusly: "Frustrated by elusive promises of the American Dream—fast cars, brand names, and easy money—a young man takes his destiny into his own hands."
Just what is this fabled American Dream? And who promised it? TV advertisers?
Tina Howe's "The Divine Fallacy"From "Painting Churches," Howe now takes us to a photographer's studio where a trendy young lensman must make a distinctive portrait of a frumpy authoress.
He's off to Paris for a Big Shoot, and she's come late. Trying to unwind her from yards of scarves, he helps peel the onion-skins of her protective carapace.
She is reclusive and hysteric. No wonder she's been cursed with the Stigmata.
Well, you get the idea. If not the picture. Jon Jory staged this with panache—among other skills.
David Ives' "Arabian Nights"
When David Ives debuted Off-Broadway with "All in the Timing"—his collection of hilarious, off-center sketches—his talent was rightly recognized. He seemed a master of banal characters in odd situations, and vice versa.
ARABIAN FANTASY--Boy Meets Girl with aid of batty Magic Carpet translator. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2000.
His boy-meets-girl skit in this revue was both cute and clever. Unfortunately, his current boy-meets-girl scenario is clumsy, rather than cute.
The nerdy boy, on a deadline and looking for a gift, stumbles into a small shop with wretched curios and a terminally shy girl. An Arabian Magus/Clown acts as a comic translator/go-between.
His stock in trade are worn-out puns. He translates "Well," in the sense of hesitation, as "A hole in the ground." And more than once.
Even with Jon Jory's direction—or perhaps because of it?—the writing and the playing seemed amateurish. Not funny, McGee!
AT&T Eavesdropping—The Phone Plays:A bank of pay-phones on a mezzanine of the Actors Theatre complex was the venue for the now annual Phone Plays, all directed by Jon Jory. This is a cute idea, and you don't have to drop a quarter into the slot to hear any of them.
They could also be performed as brief radio-plays. Or live, but why spend all that money on production-values?
There were no Car Plays this year. Real autos or taxis are costly and cramped venues.
Jeffrey Hatcher's "Show Business"Imagine calling an 800-number to get Broadway tix and discover the voice at the other end is a friend who has had better jobs. The caller wants tickets to "Annie, Get Your Gun," at the Marriott-Marquis Theatre.
The question is raised: "Has anyone really been inside the Marriott-Marquis?"
This was an all-too-brief hoot.
Regina Taylor's "Beside Every Good Man"This phone conversation is between Coretta Scott King and Winnie Mandela. Considering the subsequent canonization of the Rev. Dr. King and Nelson Mandela's rejection of Wild Woman Winnie, this makes interesting listening.
Jane Anderson's "The Reprimand"This inter-office call would freeze the blood of any man working for the firmly authoritative female executive who is savoring putting her junior female colleague in her place.
No rage. No bad language. No chewing-out. Just firm explanations of how things need to be done when making presentations in the future.
Jane Anderson, also author of "Food & Shelter," is no relation to Jane Martin.
Mark O'Donnell's "Tresspassion"George sounds drunk and he's really upset that Lenore called him a jerk. But this late-night call is being made to a Wrong Number.
José Rivera's "Lovers of Long Red Hair"It's very nice to have beautiful lustrous hair, but not so good to have absolute strangers smitten with it.
Visualizing the New Play:The noble neo-classical lobby of the Pamela Brown Theatre—once one of Louisville's oldest banks—was the venue for a small-scale exhibition of set-models for some recent outstanding productions of new dramas.
James Noone was represented by his design of a cramped basement restaurant reservation-center for Becky Mode's "Fully Committed," currently at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Richard Hudson—who designed "La Bête" on Broadway, as well as "The Lion King," with Julie Taymor—sent his starkly simple model for David Law's "Desire."
Kate Edmunds shared her model for Euripides' "Hecuba," newly translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Loy Arcenas provided his set-model for Jo Carson's "Day Trips."
Christopher Barreca offered his angled vision of an empty gray New York loft. This was the set-model for the Manhattan Theatre Club's recent production of Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain."
Big Week for American Theatre Critics:Each year—usually in late spring or early summer—members of ATCA travel from all over the United States to a major theatre-center to sample its productions and cultural life. Last year, the city was Philadelphia. The year before: Denver.
This year, however, the American Theatre Critics Association dispensed with its annual spring Manhattan mini-meeting. And the summer outing was replaced by a week in Louisville so members could attend the March Humana Festival of New Plays. The Actors Theatre of Louisville proved, as always, a generous host.
As the Humana fest is always concentrated over a three-day weekend, earlier evenings were spent in other Louisville venues, checking out local ensembles' work.
Before one of the productions, Regina Taylor was presented with the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award. This includes a plaque and a $15,000 check!
The award was given for her drama, "Oo-Bla-Dee," which focuses on female black bebop musicians during World War II. The glowing citation from the Chicago-Tribune's Richard Christiansen suggests that a New York production should be mounted soon.
Two other finalists were given citations and awards of $5,000 each. They are Jeffrey Hatcher, for "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," and Allan Knee, for "Syncopation."
Hatcher's drama deals with the attempts of Edward Kynaston—one of the last Elizabethan male actors playing female roles—to change his career-goals.
With the Restoration of the Monarchy—after the Puritan Commonwealth—and the reopening of the theatres by King Charles II, women were at last permitted to act on London stages. Kynaston had to develop new skills.
Next Summer in Ashland/This Fall in Denver:In July 2001, ATCA members will journey to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their annual conference. They have been there before—shortly after the OSF won the Tony Award for best regional theatre.
This coming October, some of ATCA's members will be returning to Denver. Sir Peter Hall made a presentation in Louisville of his forthcoming Royal Shakespeare/Denver Theatre Center production of John Barton's "Tantalus."
This is a ten-play cycle of varied dramas which cover the classical accounts and legends of the Trojan War. Performed complete, it will compete in length with Richard Wagner's famed 16-hour epic, "The Ring of the Niebelungen."
Without the vision, will, and fund-raising skills of Donovan Marley and Don Seawell of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, this project would have remained only a dream.
After Denver, "Tantalus" will be shown in London, Europe, and in Greece. It is now in rehearsal in Colorado's Mile-High capital city.
For more information about tickets, phone: 800-641-1222. For general information—and details about hotel and air packages—log on to the website: www.denvercenter.org
Louisville Alternative Theatres—Any American city the size of Louisville would be grateful to have a regional theatre complex as extensive and active as Actors Theatre, with its three stages and many productions and programs.
But there are other venues and ensembles as well. Diagonally across West Main Street from the Actors Theatre is the Kentucky Center for the Arts. It has a large concert-hall, a large theatre, and a small chamber-theatre. That Buddy Holly musical which has been running in London for years is coming there in May.
At the wonderfully restored Jazz-Age Art-Deco Moorish-Fantasy Palace Theatre, the Brothers Karamazov were on view. This amazing "Atmospheric" cinema-palace is one of a dying breed of movie-theatres.
Its proscenium and side-walls are a colorful riot of Moorish, Mediterranean, and Mogul architecture and decoration. But rising above the Alhambra-like arcades along the walls and arching overhead is a great blue shell.
This is what makes the auditorium "atmospheric." Lighting effects can sprinkle that dark blue sky with stars, shading into rosy dawn, blazing into bright midday, and fading into hazy rose and blue dusk. And back into the starry night again.
The high and richly modeled plaster vault above the theatre's long foyer is crammed with relief portraits of famous writers and composers: Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Liszt.
I suggested a contest: Anyone who can identify all the faces wins a season's subscription to the varied professional attractions at the Palace Theatre. It's worth a visit just for the decor alone.
And ATCA had a wonderful banquet in that very hall, under those famous faces. Even we—the experts—couldn't identify them all, so who will be able to judge a contest?
At the imaginatively designed Louisville Science Center—a great place for both kids and adults—crusty critics watched Disney's new edition of "Fantasia 2000" on the giant IMAX screen.
The Post-Modernist Center is ingeniously installed in a noble old Victorian building. This a wonderful way to save at least one of the many great Victorian structures which line Main Street. Unfortunately, too many of them are still derelict.
As for "Fantasia," it was instructive to learn that it was originally called the "Concert Piece." And that it was to be updated from time to time, an idea soon abandoned.
New sequences were not all that imaginative. For Disney animators—then as now—arpeggios seem to call for flights of fluttering butterflies, swooping and whirling all too often across the huge screen.
I missed the original "Night on Bald Mountain" Witches' Sabbath sequence. As well as Ben Ali Gator and the Hippo Ballerinas, inspired by George Balanchine.
As for the film's original MC/Narrator, Deems Taylor, his talking-face peeled off sideways quickly in the opener. It was replaced by James Levine, Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, and a cast of thousands.
Even the original conductor, Leopold Stokowski, got short shrift. But poor Deems Taylor has become entirely a non-person.
Time was when he enjoyed some celebrity. His "American" opera, "The King's Henchman"—with a libretto by the trendy and passionate poetess, Edna St. Vincent Millay—has been totally forgotten. Except maybe by me…
But then, it didn't really have an American theme, an American story to tell. It wasn't exactly "Baby Doe." And certainly not "The Great Gatsby."
Stage One's "Ben Franklin's Apprentice"
For my sins, I have seen much too much Children's Theatre. Some of it I would not condemn my worst enemy to sit through—much less innocent children.
BEN FRANKLIN'S APPRENTICE -- Abigail Dorn, Jens Rasmussen and Rick Long as Franklin. (photo: Patrick Pfister)
All too often, acting in kiddie theatricals is a way to "be in the theatre" without having to have very much talent, training, insight, energy, or ambition.
Young audiences are defenseless—or almost so. They cannot walk out. Their teachers and parents are on guard to prevent that.
Being introduced to live theatre at an early age is supposed to hook Audiences of the Future for life. Some noisy, self-indulgent, amateurish productions served up for the kiddies—even in New York—are more apt to put kids off theatre forever. Especially at current prices on Broadway.
But what a wonderful surprise to be introduced to the thoroughly professional productions of Louisville's Stage One! Director Moses Goldberg is obviously a dedicated Man of Theatre who knows how to mount an attention-getting show.
For starters, the Bomhard Theatre's great open stage at the Kentucky Center for the Arts was filled with a very handsome stylized unit-set of 18th century Philadelphia—designed by Tom Tutino. This could be varied to evoke different locales, mainly the Franklin home.
It appeared designed for touring. This show ought to be seen in New York on New 42nd Street at the New Victory Theatre!
The costumes and wigs—by Hollis Jenkins-Evans—were every bit as professional and impressive as the setting. They could have been borrowed from that charming musical, "Ben Franklin in Paris"—starring Robert Preston—or from "1776."
And Rick Long made a wonderfully forceful and single-minded Franklin. He not only looked the part, but he also acted it with something of the distinctive qualities we know of Franklin from both histories and folklore.
Playwright Laurie Brooks Gollobin's Pre-Revolutionary Franklin isn't so different in temperament from Karen Sunde's aged Post-Rev Franklin, in her evocative drama, "Balloon," seen in New York at the same time Franklin was on stage at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.
Some historians have questioningly noted that Franklin—possibly fearing the fatal risk of being struck by lightning—let his bastard son Billy hold the wet string with the metal key attached to Franklin's storm-engulfed kite. If someone had to die, it was not to be America's first great experimenter and inventor.
Franklin already stored static electricity in Leyden Jars. Possibly, lightning could also be so harnessed? Or safely conducted into the ground?
Gollobin shows Franklin visiting a mountebank's show of the Marvels of Electricity. This 18th century con-man turns the crank to generate static charges which leap from Leyden Jars to the hands and legs of an indentured apprentice.
Outraged both at this sideshow reduction of the powers of electric charges and the mistreatment of the apprentice, Franklin stops the show and buys the poor lad's indenture—rather like freeing a slave.
But Deist and Free-Thinker Franklin is already in trouble with local ministers for his experiments. And his son Billy betrays him by lying about the purchase of the indenture. For young audiences, it's a matter of not wanting another boy in the house to compete for Franklin's grudging attention and affection.
In the event, the brave apprentice saves both Billy and Franklin from death by lightning in a church-steeple experiment to ground the charge. This, of course, leads directly to the invention of the Lightning Rod, saving countless churches, homes, and shops from burning. Not to mention saving human-beings as well.
Not only does Billy come to see the worth and valor of the apprentice, but so does Franklin's daughter Sally. Happy Ending—for the time being.
Karen Sunde's play is set after the signing of the Treaty of Paris—which set the terms of the peace between America and England—when Dr. Franklin must leave his love, the Widow Helvetius, and return to America.
In the elegant Helvetius Salon, the contorted relationships between Franklin and his estranged son William—who was imprisoned by the Revolutionaries for being the unrepentant Colonial Governor of New Jersey—are acted out.
Despite his long life, great experience, and deep philosophical musings—unlike the Franklin in Stage One's colorful drama—in advanced age Franklin was never able to forgive Billy or heal the breach.
Roundtable Theatre's "Sweet Evening Breeze"Sheila Joyce Strunk was Scholar/MC for her collage of Kentucky Characters. She also wrote almost all the songs, performed in a C&W style.
Her Grand Concept was a Symposium and Oratorio, but the event needed a bit more refining.
The running-order of the character-segments was taped to the stage-floor. Trained to read hot-type upside down in printer's forms, I was concerned that we weren't progressing fast enough. But at least I knew what was coming.
Had there been time to study the program beforehand, I would have found the same 16 segments outlined there. Under the rubric: SCHOLARLY RESEARCH PAPERS PROVING KENTUCKY GENETIC AND LINGUISTIC SUPERIORITY.
Sweet Evening Breeze was a male Louisville hospital orderly who enjoyed cross-dressing. To the amusement, bemusement, or annoyance of locals.
Later, washing my hands, I had confirmation of the kind things Ms. Strunk had to say about him. A gent, relieving himself at the urinal, remarked to the wall in front of him: "I was at his house once. It was very clean. And he had nice things."
Sheila Joyce Strunk has filled in some blanks in my data-bank: Did you know movie-vamp Theda Bara was a Kentuckian? How about General Denhardt?
And she reminded me of the raffish characters of one of my favorite newspaper cartoons in childhood: The Down-Home Folks of "Toonerville Trolley." But who now remembers Kentucky's Fontaine Fox and his Trolley? Aside from me and Sheila?
She also quoted Mark Twain to good effect on the subject of Louisville. Which local boosters note can be pronounced: LOOAVULL, LUHVUL, LEWISVILLE, LOOAVILLE, or LOOEYVILLE.
FOR THE RECORD—Other Famous Louisvillians: Col. Harlan Saunders, Muhammad Ali, Tom Cruise, Irene Dunne, Victor Mature, Diane Sawyer, Lionel Hampton, Louis Brandeis, Zach Taylor, and the ladies who created "Happy Birthday."
The Pleiades' "The Road to Hell Is Paved"Actually, the Road to Hell is paved with drama critics' panels on such topics as Ethical Standards, How To Write a Review, and Where To Find Work.
Kentukiana playwright Joanne Gower Wilkerson's tri-partite monodrama of three women inmates in Women's State Prison was not without interest. If you watch a lot of television, you may have some idea of the pathologies of these women's lives.
If you grew up in a trailer-court and your sister is in the slammer, you may also be familiar with the types.
Performed on the platform-stage of the Rudyard Kipling, this was apparently originally a radio-drama of the Kentucky Women project.
The three inmates were embodied by Natalie Long, Suzanne Wallace Whayne, and Rema Keen—who performed her own monodrama the next day across the Ohio River.
Actors' Guild of Lexington's "Teddy's Piece"Rema Keen was very interesting as Teddy in this monodrama she and Kate Larken have concocted from the life and stories of Lillian Estelle "Teddy" McCoy Wright Triplett.
In an odd way, it reminded me of "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch." This turn-of-the century best-selling novel and Broadway-hit play were based on actual characters living way below the poverty-line in Louisville.
Louisville novelist Alice Heggan Rice celebrated the unfailing god-fearing American optimism of the overworked and under-funded Mrs. Wiggs, trying to raise her brood on the Wrong Side of the Tracks. There still is a Cabbage-Patch in Louisville.
And there is still poverty, though it's kept out of view on Main Street.
But Teddy's tale is not a local fable. Instead, the locales range from New York City to Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Keen impersonates her at 9, 12, 16, 33, 35, and 74.
She was very good in the younger years, but great age was less convincing. Also less convincing was the suggestion that Teddy had learned a lot about life and living over those long decades. She certainly learned nothing about Family Planning or Birth Control.
What she apparently learned was how to survive when married to a brutish self-willed red-necked husband. She was a coal-miner's wife until her man Clyde decided to pull up stakes and move the entire family to some other place and job.
He was restless and didn't need input from his wife about their migrant existence. This is the kind of saga—set to music—that made Nashville a Country Music Shrine. Loretta Lynn could have played Teddy.
Bunbury Theatre's "Salvage Yard"I was originally scheduled to see Juergen Tossmann's new play, "Salvage Yard," at his intimate Bunbury Theatre. I had in fact seen an Oscar Wilde play there once upon a time, so the Bunbury name has some resonance.
Curiously, some colleagues who had already seen the production urged me to see "The Lights" instead. I hesitated, for I'd already seen Korder's depressing vision of little people being eaten alive by the Big City in two other productions.
I'd also seen a new Irish drama of the same name, "Salvage Yard"—but with Irish Junk—at the Dublin Festival two seasons ago.
A "special" review to the "Courier-Journal" was headlined: "Salvage Yard" a splendid world of carburetors and caring. The critic noted that Tossmann's "…flights of fancy are so pointedly detailed and fully imagined that 2 1/2 hours pass in a quick torrent of laughs and gasps."
That's rather like noting that, although Wagner's "Parsifal" is five hours long, the performance was so powerful you hardly noticed the passage of time.
Near the end of the "Salvage Yard" review, however, the critic did suggest editing the script and trimming the running-time.
Necessary Theatre's "The Lights"My favorite Howard Korder play is still "Boy's Life," but "The Lights" has a certain acrid, despairing quality that provides an Alternative to Mamet.
This rubbish-strewn production was staged in the box-like MeX Theatre in the Kentucky Center for the Arts. A local critic was much taken with the Big City garbage which formed a creeping, crawling semicircle, separating audience from actors. His report was headlined: Prop Concepts highlight "The Lights."
Lilian [Mary Oliver Humke] loves a selfish, lying, cheating, violent junkie [Alec Volz]. Is there any other kind? She steals a watch from the jewelry shop where she works as a gift for him. Big Mistake!
This Obie-winning drama is enough to make you want to leave Big City Manhattan and go back to live quietly and safely in laid-back Louisville. Bert Harris directed.
Comedy CaravanCabaret and Stand-Up Comedy are all very well if you don't have a lot of real theatre on offer. Still, it was an interesting idea to check out some comedians who have roots in the Heartland.
For me, the best part of the evening was the Juggernaut Jug Band, complete with whiskey jugs, washboards, tub-thumpers, and kazoos. Their MC, lead-singer, and jug-blower is genial white-haired gent who looks like he's a bank president by day.
Their often amusing lyrics—and renditions—are real floor-stompers. And they are available on CDs!
Among the comedians, Bob Batch was most interesting for those who were unfamiliar with Southern Speech and Customs. His series of flash-cards demonstrated how quite ordinary greetings and observations get mangled by Good Old Boys and their kin.
Something on the order of Jeetyet, or "Did you eat yet?"
Others who shared their psyches and neuroses were Will Hardesty, Keith McGill, Marty Pollio, Bernie Lubbers, Cleveland, and Mark Klein. What would male comics do without wives, kids, girlfriends, and buddies to complain about?
"Take my wife—Puleeze!"
University of Louisville:I very much regret not having had time to see Pearl Cleage's drama, "Flyin' West." This is a play set in the all-Black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, in 1898.
African-American Theatre Program's "Flyin' West"
Far too little is known about Black American pioneers who moved westward to find homes and land for themselves. Many courageous souls hoped to make a place for themselves and their families, free of enslavement, prejudice, and repression.
Nicodemus was just such a place—but settling and holding on was not easy.
Nefertiti Burton staged this drama, mightily encouraged by Prof. Lundeana M. Thomas, head of the University of Louisville's African-American Theatre Program.
On an ATCA panel surveying Kentucky Theatre, Prof. Thomas stressed the need for critics to "do their homework" when reviewing African-American Theatre. I talked with her at luncheon, and she was also annoyed that these productions were not being reviewed in the "Courier-Journal," the "Paper of Record."
Derby Dinner Theatre's "Another Summer"This squared-arena-stage is not near Churchill Downs, site of the Annual Kentucky Derby. Instead, it is in Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville. This riverside area is called either Kentuckiana or Indiucky, depending on one's point of view.
Near the theatre is the World's Second Largest Clock, atop a former prison, but long since a Colgate toothpaste factory. No one on either side of the Ohio could tell me where the World's Largest Clock is, however.
Although the mania for Dinner Theatre died out in the New York Metropolitan Area almost two decades ago, it lives on beyond the Hudson River. There's even a National Dinner Theatre Association.
But there are currently only 33 theatres on the NDTA roster, concentrated in the Midwest—America's Breadbasket. There are four in Florida, two in California, and one in Alaska.
But there are more than 30 states which are completely Dinner Theatre-free. Unless someone is staging "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral," or "Tamara." All of which add food to their theatrics, to lure Americans hungry for the Arts—or just plain hungry.
One of the reasons for the demise of so many dinner theatres was that their manager/producers were more intent on providing bounteous buffets than quality comedies and musicals.
The Derby's General Manager, Carolyn Thomas, is not making that mistake. While the buffet is very good, the focus is on interesting shows with strong professional production values.
"Another Summer"—the musical version of Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond"—had just closed, but the cast and combo returned to perform a tab version, featuring the best songs from the show.
If you loved the play and the movie, you should find this musicalization very much to your liking as well. Even if you believe yourself an unsentimental realist, surely some of the lyrics and melodies will make you think about grudges held too long, the fragility of family, and the ebbing away of the sands of life day by day.
The nostalgic score is by Roy M. Rogosin, with book & lyrics by Thompson himself. I had very much the sense of déjà vu: that I had seen & heard this show before, perhaps in workshop?
What I liked especially was that crusty old Norman Thayer's potential step-grandson was not played—as in New York—by a precocious brat-actor. Brandon Tindle was just fine as a resentful teenager.
The Derby's Bekki Jo Schneider produced the show, directing an able cast, including Rita Thomas, Dick Conway, Brian Bowman, and Shaune Rebilas.
Derby Dinner Theatre is a year-round operation, with eight productions spaced with a one-day turnaround. Coming up: "Grease," "Sunshine Boys," "Arsenic & Old Lace," "Death By Chocolate."
As the theatre is in the ever-expanding Bible-Belt, four of the scheduled shows offer both entertainment and moral uplift: "Peace in the Valley," "Shenandoah," "Children of Eden," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
If you are planning to explore America on vacation this summer, why not pay a visit to Kentuckiana and the Derby Dinner Theatre? Phone: 812-288-8281.
Horse Cave Theatre's Coming Summer Festival:Located near Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, the Horse Cave Theatre could be another rewarding stop on your summer See America First tour. There are also a number of interesting Outdoor Historical Dramas in this part of our nation's Heartland—but that's another story.
Horse Cave's Exec Director Warren Hammack told ATCA members about the theatre's work, in lieu of bringing a production to Louisville. Actually, I had seen effective productions there already, so I can vouch for their professionalism.
Years ago, when there still was an OPRYLAND in Nashville, our gallant band of American Theatre Critics crossed the state-line to visit Horse Cave Theatre—which is only two hours from all that Country Music. I've also visited the theatre in the course of checking on outdoor plays about Daniel Boone.
Summer is Horse Cave Theatre's time to whinny with pride. From the end of June to the beginning of November is a very long summer festival season! But the weather holds—and motel-rates are cheaper in the autumn. Website: www.horsecavetheatre.org
Among the familiar names: Agatha Christie—with "Spider's Web," Moss Hart—with "Light Up the Sky," and Thornton Wilder—with "Our Town." More contemporary are C. P. Taylor's "And a Nightingale Sang" and Ray Cooney's "Funny Money."
Of real local interest is Larry's Pike's "Beating the Varsity," for Pike is from nearby Glasgow, KY. From advance descriptions, this sounds like a much more positive variation on the corrosive nostalgia of "That Championship Season."
Across the Broad Ohio—
And Into Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park:
Angus MacLachlan's "The Dead Eye Boy"Those dauntless members of ATCA who accepted a generous invitation to sample theatre up river from Louisville after the humungous Humana playfest were well rewarded. Not only was Cincinnati hospitality top-drawer, but the theatre was thoroughly professional.
Curiously, we checked in at the summit of restored Art Deco elegance—the magnificent Omni Netherlands Plaza—and were abruptly plunged into the Lower Depths of druggie rehab trailer-court misery.
Unfortunately, we lost our way trying to find Mount Adams Park and the Playhouse in the Park, perched high on the hill. So we missed the opening scene, which might have helped orient us. On a fuzzy TV monitor, we could see slam-bang knockdown drag-out fighting and hear a lot of screaming and obscenities.
My heart sank. We could have been back in Louisville, but at least these proceedings didn't look like date-rape.
Believe me, I'm not demanding an endless diet of Bourgeoise Slice-of-Life Angst—or the bi-coastal version of Parisian Boulevard Comedy. Still, it would be interesting, just once in a while, to see a drama about people who have actually completed graduate degrees and hold responsible jobs. Even if they are on drugs and have hideously kinky extra-marital sex.
Can you imagine Henrik Ibsen writing a play like that if he were with us now? Both Nora and Hedda secret opium-eaters? The Master-Builder using inferior construction materials—and forcing his carpenters to have anal sex?
Angus MacLachlan's new prize-winning drama, "The Dead Eye Boy," might well appall the historic Ibsen. Though it could certainly fascinate August Strindberg!
Kyle Fabel was compelling as Billy, an ex-Marine, recovering from addiction and determined to make a new life for himself. As well as for his new wife, Shirley-Diane [Raye Lankford], also in rehab.
Unfortunately, she brings to their marriage a desperately confused teenage son, Soren [Dan McCabe]. Her drug-taking wounded him in her womb, and his left eyelid shows signs of deformation.
She never wanted him, and he is even less welcome in the new family situation. Kyle does his best to befriend the apparently indifferent but deeply angry boy. Soren does everything he can to irritate both Kyle and his mother.
Kyle tries to absorb the hurt and reach out to Soren. Shirley strikes out at him instead and pours torrents of abuse on him.
To immobilize Soren when he is especially annoying, they bind his hands and feet with duct-tape. When they have both had too much of his goading, they tape his mouth as well.
When Kyle and Shirley return from the funeral, she compliments him on looking good in his dark suit. She dumps all Soren's pathetic treasures in a carton and seals it with—you guessed it!—duct-tape.
I must have missed the Inquest Scene, for I still cannot figure out why they were not both behind bars for child-abuse and murder. Did I doze off between Soren's agonizing suffocation—we feared for the young actor as well—and the return from the funeral?
This provocative drama is sure to be staged in New York. Maybe MacLachlan will write an Inquest Scene. It would be interesting to see how these abused adult child-abusers and killers justify themselves.
"The Dead Eye Boy" won the Lois & Richard Rosenthal New Play Prize this year. Previous winners have included "Scotland Road," presented in New York on Theatre Row and much admired by both John Simon and yours truly.
Also shown in New York were Rosenthal prize-winners "Invention for Fathers and Sons" and "De Dónde?"
"In Walks Ed, by Keith Glover, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, based on the Cincinnati's Playhouse's production. "Coyote on a Fence" is another Rosenthal winner.
I had been to the Playhouse only twice before. Years ago, I saw that hokey old melodrama, "Gaslight," in the Shelterhouse Theatre. Later, in the new Marx Theatre, I returned to see the premiere of Michael Straight's astonishing "Caravaggio."
On both occasions, board members met me at the airport and hosted me in their homes on the slopes of Mount Adams. This time, after this harrowing drama, we crossed the Ohio for a wonderful Playhouse reception in a handsome art-filled riverside condo, guests of the gracious David Harriman. Leaders in the Cincinnati theatre-community were also on hand to talk about their work.
The Playhouse in the Park will complete this season with "A Little Night Music" and "Spunk," adapted from tales by Zora Neale Hurston.
Next season, Keith Glover returns with another Rosenthal prize-winner, "Dark Paradise," in which Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday drive the Devil and his Vampires out of town.
The remainder of the scheduled season is largely mainstream entertainment, with just a whiff of the cutting-edge in "Closer" and "Avenue X."
For the rest, "Inherit the Wind," "Art," "Talley's Folly," "Shakespeare's R & J," "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," and "The Mystery of Irma Vep" seem safe-bet audience-pleasers.
And they will surely be most professionally produced by the Playhouse and its Artistic Director Ed Stern!
If you are considering a trip to Cincinnati, stay at the Art Deco Omni Netherlands Plaza. Phone: 513-421-9100 or 800-THE-OMNI.
And call the Playhouse for tickets to shows in the Shelterhouse and the Marx. Phone: 513-421-3888. [Loney]
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