Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The 39th Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville – Get There Soon

The Roommate – 
A hilarious, dark, friendship comedy 

     Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has pushed and broadened the American dramatic repertory over the past forty years in the annual Humana Festival of new plays.  It runs through April 12 this year.  It’s an internationally known venue
for theatergoers to feel the pulse of where American drama is right now and where it may go in the next five years.  I highly recommend it.  Some caveats:  it’s selling very well this year, though patrons waiting for seats the evening we went were able to see the show; purchase the parking pass, which is for the multi-story lot attached to the theater building, because ATL is caddy-corner from the massive Yum! Center on Main Street; although specific scripts may not be your preference, the productions are unfailingly world-class.

Alex Hernandez and Kamal Bolten
in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity*
     We haven’t reviewed some of the great shows we’ve seen there in the recent past:  The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (2012), Girlfriend (2013), and The Brothers Size (2015).  The reason for not writing about them was because we saw them the final weekends of their runs so it seemed beside the point to rhapsodize about productions our readers wouldn’t be able to see for themselves.  (So, instead, we’re doing so years later, which probably makes even less sense).  One of ATL’s secret weapons is that the management is able to hire top national acting talent.  Those performers may not be stars now, but they might be in the future, and many are recognizable for their movie and television credits.  Even more uniquely, ATL can hire incredible casts of ethnic diversity.  Chad Deity required actors that could convincingly portray professional wrestlers and they did so in a mesmerizing production.

Roommates Robyn and Sharon**
     We were hoping to see another play that had sold out so with Lisa’s suggestion we then chose Jen Silverman’s The Roommate.  I’m glad we did because it’s a complexly layered work, which is far richer in performance than any summary would lead a viewer to presume.  We meet Sharon, a fiftysomething semi-retiree living in Iowa City, as her new roommate Robyn is about to move in.  With this act, unusual for a middle-class, home-owning, middle-aged woman, a relationship is set in motion that will change both women.  Robyn – smart, elusive, brittle – is the yin to the caring, loquacious, and seemingly naïve Sharon’s yang.  I refuse to say anything about the plot beyond this because the three of us were riveted from the first interaction between these initial polar opposites.

Jen Silverman
     Silverman’s intertwining of plot development through character revelation is almost a textbook example of classic playwrighting technique.   Her impulse was to see two ‘badass’ female characters.  She begins with an interesting and somewhat innocuous inciting incident and then ratchets up the audience’s emotional involvement through intriguing characters, hilarious dialogue, and a plot that becomes increasingly strange and suspenseful, though it never strains credibility.  Mike Donahue has directed some of Silverman’s other work and that experience results in a crisp, perfectly paced production.  Since they’re in the arena shaped Bingham Theater, performers have to keep moving so that all four audience banks can see them.  Donahue and the actors achieve this choreography so subtly that I didn’t consciously register this happening until about three-quarters of the way through (and I’ve seen and performed in arena spaces).  The final image is simultaneously funny and chilling.  

Margaret Daly (Sharon, front)
and Tasha Lawrence (Robyn, back)**
     I think this would be a very attractive script for many companies because it’s one set, realistic, and both an audience pleaser and thinker.  It also provides two terrific roles for mature actresses, though I doubt anyone could top the initial interpretations by Margaret Daly as Sharon and Tasha Lawrence as Robyn.  Initially, they had me thinking, ‘oh, I know someone who looks, sounds, or acts just like her’ and then, as the play progressed, I thought, ‘these are originals.’  Daly’s sweetness and emotional fluidity serve her beautifully, especially as things darken.  There’s a scene where she conducts a sales call that, as Lisa pointed out, reveals both Sharon’s and Robyn’s dreams.  Lawrence’s physical grace visually seduces and her cool attitude compels the audience to hear her secrets.

    The sound design and original music by Daniel Kluger provide an atmosphere that could simultaneously stand in for cicadas and other night sounds in the Midwest as well as the jungle.  We had a couple of quibbles with some details in the script, but after discussing them, we worked out why they still made sense.  Full disclosure:  we talked about the production for over an hour on the ride home, which is a testament to its quality.

*photo by Alan Simons
**photos by Bill Brymer

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