- 37th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
The 2013 Humana Festival of New American Plays took on added significance as the first one programmed under the leadership of Les Waters, who moved east from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to take over as artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) during the 2012 festival. Waters is no stranger to Humana, having directed plays by Charles Mee and Naomi Iizuka in previous seasons, and the 2013 offerings suggested that it was business as usual in Waters’s first time out at the helm. The festival is always a mixed bag in terms of style and substance, and the plays are better taken on their individual merits than as some kind of referendum on the state of the American theatre. Humana 37 included two particularly satisfying events: Will Eno’s Gnitand Mallery Avidon’s O Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you, each of them a bold and ambitious examination of a lost soul staged with edgy theatricality by a sure-handed director.
There are two ways to experience Eno’s Gnit: on its own quirky, disorienting terms and on knowing that it is an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. I knew nothing about the play going in and failed to make the Norwegian connection until a friend pointed it out at intermission. At the time, I wished he had not. Knowing that it was Ibsen made it safer and triggered academic impulses, but that did not stop me from being amused and then unnerved by the play’s oddball characters, disjointed narrative, and wry sense of irony. Eno’s version presents the misadventures of one Peter Gnit, a conniving, self-involved scoundrel who crashes a country wedding, steals the bride, abandons her, and then sets off as a fugitive on a mock-epic journey of self-discovery. The adaptation is written for an ensemble of six actors: one to play the rascally anti-hero, and five to play the many others he encounters in his worldly travels. Dan Waller was commanding in his cartoonish rendering of Gnit, and the rest of the cast matched his deadpan buffoonery with one comic turn after another. Les Waters staged the sprawling action in high relief and with masterful control, giving it an off-kilter, tongue-in-cheek quality that defied an audience to take it seriously. Still, when Gnit returned home after thirty peripatetic years to find out that the girl he left behind had only recently died, the sense of loss and a life wasted was palpable. Goofy and profound all at once, Gnitwas a tour de force of comic expressionism.
If Eno’s Gnit lacks self-awareness, Mallery Avidon’s Lila has too much of it. As a child, Lila grew up for a time in the 1990s in an ashram dedicated to the spiritual practices of Siddha Yoga. She is age 30 now, a wannabe actor in New York, unhappy, deeply conflicted about her upbringing, and stuck in the middle of an identity crisis. On one level, O Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with youis a compelling tale about Lila’s efforts to come to terms with all that, and it is just fine as such. On another level, its peculiar, challenging form makes it a fascinating meditation on sincerity, authenticity, and truth, theatrical and otherwise. The questions “Is this true?” and “Is this real or make believe?” were made all the more immediate by Lila Neugebauer’s subtle and deft staging and the easy, unforced charm of the six-woman cast.
The play takes the form of a triptych, with each part presenting itself as decidedly nondramatic in form. The first part was a confessional lecture in which Lila described, with the help of notecards and slides, her youthful experience of Siddha Yoga. The second part was an actual Siddha Yoga ceremony with chanting, testimony, and meditation, presented by a group of women in colorful saris...