Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville still takes risks with The Humana Festival

     It’s always worth a trip to Louisville in March-April to see one of the world premieres at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) as part of the Humana Festival.  This is the 40th year of the festival and the line-up of plays seems intriguing this year.  We decided to call for a couple of tickets, stop for lunch at Havana Rumba (or Jack Fry’s or Hammerheads or the new Game, take your pick), and go to a 4 p.m. matinee of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.  The synopsis told us something, namely that it was about a woman who’d played Peter Pan onstage when she was younger and her family living in Iowa.

Kathleen Chalfant
     We discovered while reading the program that the cast included Kathleen Chalfant, a great stage actress we’d only seen on film and TV, Scott Jaeck, whom I saw a number of times in Chicago while I was in college, and Keith Reddin , author of some of the most stylistically adventurous comedies of the 1980s including Rum and Coke and Highest Standard of Living, and other top actors we’ve seen on various TV series as guest stars.  Les Waters, artistic director at ATL, directed as he has four other works by Ruhl.  Amy Wegener, ATL literary manager, was the dramaturg.  (This means she does lots of research for directors and actors on existing plays and works as an editor with new plays, especially world premieres like this one).  London based designer Annie Smart was responsible for the set.  Everything sounded great.

The Entire Cast in the Hospital Scene*
     During the prologue, Chalfant immediately connected with the audience as the central character Ann (I wondered if the audience was mesmerized by the actress or the character and I have to say in retrospect it was Chalfant’s magic) and got things off to a bright start.  Then the curtains were pulled back to reveal a naturalistic hospital set that looked more contemporary because of its color scheme than the 1990s mentioned in the program.  An elderly man was dying, surrounded by his grown children and for anyone who’s been at a deathbed, it’s not something that’s immediately entertaining and Ruhl did little to make the experience specific to that group of characters or deeply resonant to an audience.

Wendy and Peter*
     The cast was challenged by a number of factors that it met head on.  First, Chalfant’s Ann never made sense as someone who never grew up and needed reassurances from her brothers.  However, she valiantly made this as truthful as she could.  Lisa Emery’s Wendy, the youngest sibling, had all the desperation of a middle-aged person lost in the family shuffle and unwilling to deal with anything difficult or mature.  Ann seemed like a second mother to her brothers, namely the iconic Wendy, whereas Wendy made much more sense as Peter Pan.  Second, Ruhl loves to shift gears between a gently realistic comedy-drama and a whimsical approach to fantasy and connections to myth (Greek in the past, but J.M. Barrie here).  It seemed charming and original a decade ago in The Clean House, but this script never went deep enough in fleshing out the siblings nor strongly enough in connecting them to the Peter Pan archetypes and then the actual Pan characters and situations in the third scene.  Where was the dramaturg in this?  When was this draft of the script completed?  

     The major challenge at this matinee was an elderly audience member who fell up some stairs about halfway through the performance and what seemed like a dozen audience members and the house management staff tried to assist.  No one whispered so it was pretty obvious what was going on.  At one point, the house doors were opened to the street for the EMT to assist and then transport the patient.  The performance never wavered, which the audience credited to the cast with a standing ovation.  However, no one from the theatre ever informed the audience what had transpired at the end of the performance and the situation continued for about a half hour.  If Ruhl had been present, she would have seen something remarkable:  the audience, for the most part, was more interested in what was going on with the audience member that fell than it was in the story onstage.  

     If this were reported to her, I’d hope she’d consider revising the play.  The first thing Neil observed was that it wasn’t finished and he was right.  The fantasy elements, while lovely, are not woven densely enough into the texture of the aging Iowa siblings’ story and the relationships between those characters are not detailed enough for an audience to really care.  There’s nothing that would offend any audience member even though the specter of political discourse is raised yet quickly dropped and that’s a problem.  It’s a safe, mild play in which a group of wonderful actors provide far more substance to the proceedings than the play merits at this juncture.  Ruhl’s very hot right now (she’s actually a little overrated) so I doubt any of this will be recommended to her and most likely this current script version will be produced elsewhere because of her name.

     However, we don’t mean for this review to keep audiences from attending the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  There are other scripts and productions going on that are probably wonderful.  We’ve seen other terrific shows there in the past and we’ll certainly return.  One note to Waters and Wegener:  what about reviving one of Reddin’s scripts?  I bet they still hold up.

*Photos by Bill Brymer for ATL

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