Every year for the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville commissions a group of playwrights to fashion an anthology – a collection of short plays gathered under one production – to showcase the current crop of acting apprentices. There’s a theme to unify the pieces – last year’s “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” focused on the brain science of sleep, and 2012’s “Oh Gastronomy!” was all about food – and once published, the play becomes a suitable showcase piece for any large cast of young adult actors, perfect for high school or college productions.
This year’s apprentice showcase “Remix 38” offered its playwrights a more esoteric assignment: take eight previous Humana Festival world premieres and “remix” them into new work. The theater commissioned five young, buzzworthy playwrights – Jackie Sibblies Drury, Idris Goodwin, Basil Kreimendahl, Justin Kuritzkes and Amelia Roper – to take a handful of elements from a wide range of Humana Festival standouts and create something wholly new.
And they did – don’t expect to be able to identify exactly which plays are remixed into which pieces here, though the savvy Humana Festival veteran could compose quite the Bingo card to accompany this production. This is both wonderful – who wants to see re-treads of old plays in a festival of new work? – and frustrating. Because the theme is so subtle, the production lacks the glue that traditionally lends the anthology structure and meaning. It’s hard to see what the appeal of the script in its entirety would be to the average college theater department, outside of a fairly deep and hardcore Humana Festival unit of study.
The plays remixed are: “Crimes of the Heart,” Beth Henley (1979); “Talking With …” Jane Martin (1982); “Marisol,” Jose Rivera (1992); “Polaroid Stories,” Naomi Iizuka (1997); “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek,” Naomi Wallace (1998); “Big Love,” Charles Mee (2000); “Ameriville,” by UNIVERSES (2009); The Method Gun,” written by Kirk Lynn and created by The Rude Mechs (2010).
Directed by former apprentice company member Ian Frank, the production boasts nine individual short plays (plus one out-of-left-field musical number). Both of Kreimendahl’s pieces are the stand-outs of the production. “Like We Do” is a poignant portrait of a construction site, featuring conversations between two sets of work partners (Jason Huff and Derek Grabner, Devon Nimerfroh and Cyndii Johnson), manual laborers who both are and are not looking for something larger and more meaningful than their hard, tedious jobs. “Finger Play (not a real title)” is a darkly funny study of how people react when they lose or find something of value. Again, the characters are young and working class, but here the tone is delightfully off-kilter and heightened, and the script offers the ensemble (Lindsey Kite, Conrad Schott, Madison Niederhauser, Zach Wymore, Peregrine Heart, Emily Stout, Johnson and Mirirai Sithole) ample opportunity to exercise their comedy chops (including the very best use of Lee Greenwood’s painfully earnest “God Bless the U.S.A.” ever employed on stage).
If you saw January’s slate of ten-minute plays, “The Tens,” then you saw a better overall canvas for this company’s considerable talents, and it’s a shame the industry’s many heavy hitters who visit the Humana Festival won’t have that opportunity. But that’s not to say “Remix 38” isn’t enjoyable. For the most part, the individual plays are fine short pieces for young actors, if not particularly memorable. One head-scratching moment, though, comes in Kuritzkes‘ “If … Then …” which uses a short story about a young woman visiting her ex-boyfriend and his wife to call attention to human rights abuses at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. It’s a clever set-up, but – apologies for the spoiler – the piece includes a graphic group sex scene involving nudity that, call me old-fashioned, seems like a tasteless way to call attention to the humanitarian plights of individual Muslim detainees that the play calls out by name. Credit to actors Julia Bynum, Casey Worthington and Lauren LaRocca for being willing to go there, but the entire scene felt like a writing exercise best left on the workshop floor, an amateur-level provocation for provocation’s sake.
The show runs through April 6 in the Bingham Theatre, but note: performances are at off-times (March 28, 11 p.m.; March 30, 10:30 a.m.; April 4, 11 p.m.; April 6, 10:30 a.m.) because the apprentices work their tails off crewing the festival’s mainstage productions, and they deserved every second of the standing ovation Friday’s enthusiastic crowd gave for turning around after a long week and delivering energetic, bright-eyed performances throughout the two-hour show.