Going to the theater is always an intimate, communal experience in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first weekend of April the climactic one for the annual Humana Festival of New American plays. Still, nothing quite prepares you for an up-close-and-personal encounter with Under Construction, an experimental theater piece crafted by playwright Charles Mee and avant-garde director Anne Bogart. On a tiny stage littered with construction material, one actor opens the proceedings by telling the audience which scenes will be performed this evening numbers 6, 79, 29, 22, 67 and so forth. "It seemed to us that these scenes, in this order, are wonderful," he says, while noting that they could easily change in the future. Just like America always "under construction."
As a theme for the seemingly random theatrical assault that follows, it a bit too, well, all-purpose. But it serves. The play was inspired by the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the work of the avant-garde installation artist Jason Rhoades, and it's a witty, sometimes mystifying, often riveting mishmash of classic Americana and anarchic performance art. It opens with a recording of Bing Crosby singing "Dear Hearts and Gentle People," then slides into a series of Rockwellian scenes: a Thanksgiving dinner; a high school couple on a first date, accompanied by a recorded 1950s lesson in dating etiquette. In between, the actors create rickety constructions out of found objects (a football, a blonde wig, a skirt on a hanger); badger audience members for details of their sex life; parade on and off the stage in an assortment of absurdist masks and costumes. One guy clinging to a pole is wrapped up in duct tape; another wrestles naked inside a sheet of translucent plastic; then there's the vaguely threatening shirtless clown, who wanders about tangled in an extension cord, with an iron dragging at the end of it. (See TIME's top 10 theater productions of 2008)
And if the piece can be as frustrating as it is fascinating, it's only fitting for a festival that has become a window into the disparate strands of American theater today. Started in 1976 by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Humana Festival gained fame in its early years for introducing future Broadway and off-Broadway hits (The Gin Game, Crimes of the Heart and Agnes of God). Following the departure of its founding artistic director, Jon Jory, who was replaced by Marc Masterson in 2001, the festival lost a bit of buzzworthiness, but became a bit more open to work from the experimental fringes.
And it remains a must-attend event for theater professionals across the country. Even with a troubled economy, attendance this year was up over last year. And if the selection of new plays was creatively a mixed bag, for this first-timer it was a stimulating weekend. No breakout hits (like last year's festival favorite, Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, which moved on to an acclaimed off-Broadway run), but plenty of signs of vitality, flashes of brilliance, displays of theatrical invention. The flaws and missteps are part of the experience: you want to get involved, tinker, help with the discovery process: it's theater under construction.
Take Slasher, for example, Allison Moore's comedy about an Austin, Texas, waitress who gets picked to play the last girl killed in a low-budget slasher film. Moore shows a real feel for the milieu: the Austin independent filmmaking scene, where cowboy film geeks meet up with cheeseball Hollywood wannabes. The encounter in which the film's hack director (a brilliantly smarmy Mark Setlock) discovers his star, Sheena, in a Hooters-style hangout, enlists her for his film and promptly gets rolled by her in contract negotiations, is as sharp and modulated a satire of Hollywood hucksterism as anything this side of David Mamet. Unfortunately, the play doesn't quite know where to go after that. The focus shifts to Sheena's surly, pill-popping, wheelchair-bound mother, who is outraged (not very credibly) at her daughter's job on feminist grounds and vows to stop the production. Not a bad idea turning Mom into a real-life counterpart of a horror-film stalker but her character (at least in Lusia Strus's over-the-top performance) is too much of a shrieking harridan from the start, and neither Moore nor director Josh Hecht manage to make the farcical revenge plot pay off. But a little reworking might do wonders for this promisingly pulpy play.