LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The best show at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, which runs here through Sunday, had an unbearable start. The first 40 minutes of Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s “Do You Feel Anger?” felt so gratingly forced, it was hard to see where the story could go. But there was a payoff, and a great one.
In this dark comedy, directed by Margot Bordelon, an “empathy coach” named Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) is sent out to train the employees of a debt-collection agency. Ms. Nelson-Greenberg doubles down on the absurdism: Sofia’s parents nickname her “little spider” because she was born with eight arms, while Eva (Megan Hill), an agency employee, cannot remember the name of the boyfriend she just broke up with. We are stuck in a collegiate version of Ionesco, and it is stultifying.
Eventually, however, the real subject emerges: the way some men feel threatened by women and demand that love and work be on their terms — or else.
Jon (Dennis William Grimes) is dumbfounded when he learns about menstruation; Howie (Amir Wachterman) has a meltdown and stops only when Sofia tells him that yes, he’s funny: “I think I just didn’t understand the joke,” she explains.
As for Eva, she’s willing to date just about any man because if her colleagues think she’s single, they will pounce on her. The ending is bloody, although in a smartly unpredictable way, and may well haunt me for a while.
If one theme emerged from Humana’s 42nd edition, it is that living in the United States is a rather complicated proposition nowadays — especially if you happen to be a woman. Even a comedy like the ace Jaclyn Backhaus playlet “The National Foosball Championship” (part of an omnibus of short works) revolved around a battle of the sexes.
While everybody in Mark Schultz’s “Evocation to Visible Appearance” is despondent, the two female characters feel powerless. Chatty Samantha (Suzy Weller) is dumped by her boyfriend (Lincoln Clauss) after informing him she’s pregnant — which she may or may not be. Her sister, the sharp-tongued but depressive Natalie (Ronete Levenson), is in a mental institution.
Mr. Schultz (“The Gingerbread House”) and the director Les Waters lay on the gloom a bit thick, but then the play is less about plot than about atmosphere, in this case dread fueled by dead-end jobs, illness and general misery.
A sudden act of violence at a fast-food outlet does not feel earned, and comes across as gratuitous provocation, but the play is almost redeemed by a bizarre conclusion that left the audience as mystified as any I’ve ever seen: In a kind of dark-arts séance, a deafeningly loud doom-metal song is performed live while Samantha attempts to conjure her possibly imaginary unborn child and her father (Bruce McKenzie) dances like a pained cartoon bear. The house lights abruptly come back. There is no curtain call.
This was quite the mic drop from Mr. Waters — who, incidentally, is departing as the artistic head of Actors Theater, which runs the festival.
The workplace violence in Susan Soon He Stanton’s “we, the invisibles” is more muted, but the threat is always there. Ms. Stanton’s starting point was the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, when he was accused of assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper. At the time, in 2011, Ms. Stanton was herself working at a high-end Manhattan hotel, and the play is her attempt to give the “invisibles” who form the hospitality industry’s backbone their due.
Ms. Stanton likes to have fun with storytelling. (Last year’s “Today Is My Birthday” was narrated through phone calls and voice messages.) Here the myriad quick-take scenes are well handled by the director Dámaso Rodríguez and the excellent ensemble cast, which captures the hotel’s staff as well as Susan (Rinabeth Apostol), the playwright’s stand-in, usually seen interviewing former co-workers, and Ms. Diallo herself (Rebecca S’Manga Frank).
While it has an appealing documentary quality, “we, the invisibles” also feels directionless. Susan initially says she wants to leave “D.S.K.” out of her story, for instance, but he has a way of popping in. Re-enactments of Abel Ferrara’s film “Welcome to New York” and the “Law & Order: SVU” episode based on the incident are hilarious, but keep taking us back to the criminal case Susan claims not to be interested in.
Another workplace-focused drama is “Marginal Loss” by Deborah Stein (“The Wholehearted”), which unfurls over the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. The action is set in the New Jersey warehouse from which a Manhattan financial firm is temporarily operating, trying to get back to business.
The four-character play, directed by Meredith McDonough, is professional, but to what end? No matter how much they suffered or how many friends and colleagues they lost, the characters don’t seem to live beyond the page. Ultimately “Marginal Loss” lacks a strong point of view on what these finance workers are trying so hard to accomplish: to make a ton of money again.
Leah Nanako Winkler’s “God Said This,” the festival’s highest-profile production — it recently received the Yale Drama Series Prize and will be presented in New York at Primary Stages next season — is a relatively traditional drama in which a Japanese-American family from Lexington, Ky., deals with the mother’s cancer.
Masako (Ako) is getting chemotherapy in a hospital, attended by her daughters: the good-girl, born-again Sophie (Emma Kikue) and the pot-smoking, rebellious Hiro (Satomi Blair), who has flown in from New York. Masako’s husband, James (Jay Patterson), is not aging well, having turned into a bit of a hoarder. Fights, reconciliations, tears — events follow a conventional route.
The lived-in acting is a highlight of the show, directed by Morgan Gould. This may have to do with Ako, Ms. Blair and Mr. Patterson playing the same characters at Ensemble Studio Theater two years ago in Ms. Winkler’s “Kentucky.” It’s unclear whether Ms. Winkler is planning a large-scale cycle, but her plays may work better in aggregate.
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