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Humana Festival 2003

Winners and losers in the annual national festival

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When the west wind blows in from Indiana across the Ohio River and the mercury is stuck at 49F, Louisville is a bone-chilling place. Tourists who emerged from the Galt House Hotel when I arrived on March 28 were inexplicably decked out in shorts as the sun went down -- more ridiculously in denial than even the foolhardiest Charlottean in the teeth of the cold.

City and state officials have better sense, waiting till May for the running of the Kentucky Derby at nearby Churchill Downs and till August for the State Fair. March and April are better months for following the college hoops fortunes of the Tubby Smith's Wildcats and the Rick Pitino's Cardinals. Or if your tastes for indoor fare are more highbrow, there's opera, ballet, and theatre.

Louisville has long been proud of its thoroughbreds, its bourbon, and its eponymous baseball bats. Theatre is a relatively recent source of pride and renown, dating back to the first Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1976.

Launched in a converted bank building, the Festival broke quickly out of the gate. In the first three years of the event, two of the plays showcased in Louisville -- D.L. Coburn's I>The Gin GameP> and Beth Henley's I>Crimes of the HeartP> -- went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. By the fourth year of the festival, an impressive lineup of contemporary play-writing heavyweights had already been celebrated in the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, including Athol Fugard, Marsha Norman, Wole Soyinka, Brian Friel, John Guare, Israel Horovitz, Lanford Wilson, and Oliver Hailey.

Humana Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the PR-savvy health benefits company, began sponsoring the city's signature cultural event in 1979. Renamed the B>Humana Festival of New American PlaysP> in honor of the Louisville-based company in 1981, the event now spans six weeks at a performing complex that has mushroomed into three nifty theatre spaces -- and a funky restaurant.

Critics flock from across the country to Humana to assess the new work. On April 5, the American Theatre Critics Association announced its annual award winner for Best New American Play at the festival. With a heavy production slate that weekend in Charlotte, I elected to attend a week earlier -- during a three-day play-going bacchanal designated as Theatre Professionals Weekend. It's a great way for theatre companies to scout up-and-coming work and climb aboard with agents and publishers to secure performing rights before any boffo bandwagon gathers steam.

With shows beginning as early as 10:30I>amP>, I was able to attend seven full-length shows in less than 48 hours -- I>plusP> an 11:00I>pmP> suite of 16 short plays performed by the talented Actors Theatre apprentice troupe. I missed a trio of 10-minute plays that premiered a week later, but that's showbiz.

By my count, we've seen 22 full-length shows in Charlotte during the Loaf Era that first took wing at the Humana Festival. That roster includes two of I>CL'sP> Shows of the Year, I>The IlluminatiP> and I>Anton in Show BusinessP>. At least one more Louisville alum is on the near horizon, I>Polaroid StoriesP>, scheduled for a June opening at the Hart-Witzen Gallery.

There were more Charlotte I>actorsP> at this year's Humana than local artistic directors. But that doesn't mean we won't be seeing one or more of the class of Humana 2003 soon in Charlotte. There were multiple worthy candidates on my scorecard.

B>Omnium-GatherumP> by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck -- Prime cut trivialities of the new capitalist millennium intersect with a terrifying, militarized future in this brilliantly concocted dinner party fiasco. Our hostess, Suzie, quickly emerges as a thinly disguised Martha Stewart caricature. Hilariously preoccupied with her exquisitely orchestrated dinner menu, perpetually gracious and solicitous toward her guests, no matter how quarrelsome and obnoxious they become, Suzie has crafted her post-9/11 soiree with a couple of startling surprises on her guest list.

But first the collaborating playwrights stir the pot with numerous ripostes and imbroglios between a reactionary best-selling author and a vegan feminist. Both these combatants prove repellent to an African-American preacher, a cynical British intellectual, and a distinguished Arab scholar.

Suzie provides the comic relief when tempers begin to boil, with innocuous attempts at peacemaking. We also get the dark, dictatorial side of Suzie when the Brit requests extra salad dressing and when the vegan -- who'll eat "nothing with a face" -- complains that she's starving.

Then, as the flyovers by ominous aircraft increase in frequency and loudness, Suzie unveils her surprise guests: an Al-Qaida terrorist and a ghost! Life has turned into a stagey talkshow entertainment. Most powerful is the passionate argument between the terrorist and the dignified Arab scholar, who becomes the unexpected conscience of the piece.

Kristine Nielsen was delightfully vacuous as Suzie, with aptly flavored sprinkles of intimidating ferocity. As Khalid, the I>raissoneurP> of the feast, Edward A. Hajj was the perfect blend of idealism and pedantry.

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