Humana Festival of New American Plays
How Austin looked on the national stage
The Rude Mechanicals are glad to be home, but man, leaving Kentucky was tough. During the five weeks they were at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where their work The Method Gun was part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the Rudes had such a blast and were treated so well that they were sorely tempted to stay and make the Derby City their new base of operations. And after seeing for myself how their work was supported there, I couldn't have blamed them. Every ATL staffer I spoke with, including Artistic Director Marc Masterson, effusively praised the collective. Most common refrain: "We love the Rudes," typically followed by a line like, "I think they've given us more than we've given them."
What they gave ATL was their characteristically inventive, lively, and playful approach to making theatre in a new iteration of the hit show that opened at the Long Center in 2008 and was reworked at the Off Center last year. This latest Method Gun – the "10% sadder version," claims playwright Kirk Lynn – played in a 160-seat black box with audience on three sides, and whether it was that space's heightened intimacy, my own familiarity with the material, or a tightening of the show, the Humana staging moved me more than any version I'd seen. Cast members Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, Jason Liebrecht, and Shawn Sides keep getting deeper under the skins of the misfit disciples of acting guru Stella Burden, who, after she abandons them, question what they've learned and how to finish the project they've been rehearsing for nine years: a version of A Streetcar Named Desire that omits Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch. The Method Gun has always struck me as being more about how to live than how to act – whenever its characters express anxiety about behaving the right way "onstage," I hear "in the world" – and that hits home more poignantly with each viewing. Gun baffled its share of festivalgoers – a fractured, metatheatrical piece that includes a talking tiger and a pair of nude guys with balloons tied to their man-shafts will do that – but it clearly belonged at Humana; viewed beside the festival's other six works, its artistic vision and execution were of national caliber.
The Method Gun belonged in other ways, too. Its exploration of performers whose desperate longing to succeed on the stage far outstrips their theatrical talents paralleled that of The Cherry Sisters Revisited, Dan O'Brien's look at the true-life siblings whose vaudeville act was notoriously ridiculed for its ineptitude. Both plays seemed to be in conversation about the fatal allure of the footlights and whether the incompetents who pursue it deserve our laughter or our empathy, and both left me haunted by their protagonists' persistence. The Rudes' work shared the theatrical sensibility of Fissures (lost and found), a collaborative work by six Minneapolis writers that probed the unreliability of memory. Its characters wandered through a spare, abstract white space (one of three brilliant sets at the festival designed by Austin's Michael Raiford), struggling to square their recollections of places and past events with what's before them. As in The Method Gun, these figures are funny, acknowledge their audience, convey meaning through movement, literally write all over the set, and make us gasp with an unexpected, richly theatrical visual. Both works are innovative theatre, grabbing you with their physicality and creativity.
Along with the Rudes and Raiford, our town was represented at Humana by Austin expat Dan Dietz and current Michener fellow Diana Grisanti, both of whom penned sharp 10-minute plays that deserve to be seen here. The festival is always worth a trip (if space permitted, I'd gladly share my impressions of this year's other shows), but being able to see Austin theatre artists stand so tall in the company of their peers from across the country made it an especially worthwhile one this year. Congratulations, folks, and welcome home.