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March 11, 2009

Theater: Humana Fest withers, blossoms at once

Reviews of the first two plays: "Ameriville" and "Slasher"

Ameriville
Written by UNIVERSES.
Directed by Chay Yew.

Slasher
Written by Allison Moore.
Directed by Josh Hecht.

(Selections from the Actors Theatre of Louisville 33rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Continues through April 11. Call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org for more information.)

 

Springtime in Louisville: lush canopies of green unfurl, Derby dresses dance on display and Actors Theatre unbridles the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Yet even as this marks the 33rd year of one of the most important, and certainly largest and most successful, new play festivals in the country, I sense that it remains, to many locals, a hidden gem. No matter your opinion on theater, this legendary event should be on every resident’s must-do list.

Now, there are always going to be ups and downs; that’s part of what makes the festival worth attending. You never know when you’re about to be among the first to see what’s soon to become the hottest ticket in New York or Chicago.

On that note, then, I have good and bad news. Good news first: “Slasher,” by Allison Moore, directs its gaze on the gasping state of a sociopolitical movement with such hilariously written characters that the audience never feels force-fed. Moore makes her point and never neglects to entertain. 

The bad news is that “Ameriville,” by UNIVERSES, attempts and falls far short of reaching the lofty goal of addressing (all?) the social ills of the United States. Can an hour-and-a-half-long production successfully examine healthcare, gentrification, gun control, hate crimes, displaced Iraqi war veterans, illegal immigration and religion? I won’t say it can’t be done, but it most certainly isn’t accomplished here.

The piece begins strongly. A blend of step, spoken word, gospel vocalization and eerily chanted nursery rhymes render an ominous, mystical setting. Gamal Abdel Chasten, Mildred Ruiz, William Ruiz (aka Ninja) and Steven Sapp, collectively known as UNIVERSES, are talented, no doubt, and they assert their purpose to be assessing the state of the union “through the lens of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.”

That intention is clear for perhaps the first 45 minutes. Yet suddenly, everything but an Iraqi’s kitchen sink is mentioned, and cursorily at that. Bemoaning the proliferation of various constructs (reality television, social networking sites, YouTube) that encourage our country’s ever-shortening attention spans, one actor exclaims, “I saw the best minds of my generation reduced to sound bites.” While illustrating that point surely was not UNIVERSES’s aim, “Ameriville” ironically suffers from that very fate.

While there are moments of individual revelation, there’s not a deep emotional connection to the foundation of the piece. Being that none of the actors’ biographies mention New Orleans, I question how deeply they know the city. That would explain the lack of personal investment, and make the premise distastefully presumptuous.

There’s little to compare in “Slasher” and “Ameriville,” save that there’s never a shadow of a doubt that playwright Allison Moore knows the people who inhabit her play. Although she offers the somewhat pedestrian dichotomy between a feminist and a chauvinist, the former is a pill-popping, foaming-at-the-mouth sufferer of chronic fatigue who hasn’t left her house in a year, and the latter a failed, self-important horror film director who’s furtively snuck back home from L.A. 

“Slasher” has a slower build. Young co-ed Sheena (Nicole Rodenburg), sole breadwinner for her incapacitated feminist mother, Frances (Lusia Strus), and brainy younger sister Hildy (Katharine Moeller), goes to her Hooters-esque job and ends up being flattered into accepting the role of lead actress in smarmy director Marc’s (Mark Setlock) latest horror film.

Furious with Sheena for being willing fodder for the clichéd sexism of a horror film, and discovering she has her own score to settle with Marc, Frances sets into motion a plan to end not only the filming, but Marc’s life.

Marc declares that a horror film is “an allegory. It tells us about our deepest fears not just personally, but as a nation.” “Slasher” could be said to do the same for the aging feminists who’ve watched as the very people it sought to free, the next generation of young women, have gradually and increasingly crippled the movement.

The play works as well as it does due not only to Moore’s uproarious characters and dialogue, but also the dead-on characterizations by the actors. Lusia Strus is an absolute riot, all gravelly voice and acerbic wit. Mark Setlock is so revoltingly slick that by contrast, his meltdown inches toward the genuinely terrifying.

Lucas Papaelias as eager assistant director Jody and Christy McIntosh as numerous characters arguably pull just as much of the spotlight as the leads. As for casts, consider the festival’s bar set.

As is often the case with full-length plays in the Humana Festival, “Slasher” encounters problems in its conclusion. Although it’s necessary to have Marc in the last scene, exactly why he’s there is not satisfactorily explained, especially considering his last interaction with Sheena.

There’s never a known “sure thing” at the start of each Humana Festival. But then again, there’s nothing quite like being at the dawning of one.