Michael Allyn and Alex Might in Six Days on the Road. 44th Humana Festival, 2020. Photo by Jonathan Roberts
Are You There?
By Vivian Barnes, Jonathan Norton, and Gab Reisman
Directed by Robert Barry Fleming
Performed by the actors of the 2019-2020 Professional Training Company
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
And thus is launched the 44th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Once not very long ago the showcase for the Professional Training Company used to be the last show to open; now it OPENS the festival itself. Whether this is just out of love for the members of the PTC, a company that has always been a crucial part of Actor Theatre operations but has more recently taken on distinct intentionality in both the selection and application of said members.
This year material from three playwrights was commissioned around the idea of distance and digital communication. The stage fills with the entire company brandishing cell phones in Gab Reisman’s opening salvo, GroupChat, followed by the absurdity of hearing cybertalk spoken out loud with overemphatic cheek in Vivian Barnes’ Buddy Chat. Emojis, in particular, do not translate well into dialogue. Both pieces are funny and played to the hilt, even if they make rather obvious points about online communication.
Jonathan Norton offered some of the most insightful writing of the evening by in effect looking back in time, first to the unexpectedly tender relationships CB radios afforded to the denizens of U.S. highways in Six Days on the Road. It was the first real play of the night, forging characters of depth that defy the expected cliches of the citizen’s band. Michael Allyn and Alex Hight as the married man (call sign “Nightcrawler”) eliciting help from the gender-fluid “Daisy Duke” made good use of the space Norton’s script opened up for them.
Barnes’ This is The Daily illustrates the frightening and not so far-fetched idea that Alexa and other electronic residents in our homes might actually be surveilling us, a simple idea is given an appropriately brief running time.
Facebook Invite was Reisman again, in another roundelay of social media separation that offered little beyond an opportunity for good ensemble work from the seven cast members and a final, touching moment illustrating something like real intimacy.
Norton’s a short play vaguely reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was my favorite of the program, a vividly realized fantasia about Black 1980s superstars interacting in the Afterlife that featured Noah Keyishian as perhaps Michael Jackson, Kaitlyn Boyer as perhaps Whitney Houston, Ashtonn Thompson as perhaps Prince, Gabriella Llarena as Vanity and Isaiah J. Williams as Luther (Vandross). It was richly costumed with satirical cunning that did not overwhelm the first-rate comic performances found here; Keyishian, in particular, was a first-class study in subtle and detailed physical comedy. The connection to the overriding theme seemed non-existent, but this was easily the most memorable play in the group.
The personalization of the Mars rover Opportunity and electronic communication across millions of miles was the subject of Oppy, Barnes’ strongest contribution, a notion that expands our understanding of distance. Why does the emotional attachment to “Oppy” seems more meaningful than many human relationships? Is it the immense distance? Or the fact that we placed them on a barren, remote landscape all alone? Is there life on Mars? While Oppy lived, certainly the answer was yes.
#rosaparks, or I Wish a Muhfucka Would imagines Rosa Parks (Kaitlyn Boyer) and Martin Luther King (Ashtonn Thompson) struggling to get a civil rights movement off the ground in the face of social media division. The point that our obsessive relationship with digital technology and identity may be the biggest impediment to organizing real social change is salient and tragic, and the writer’s sharply drawn comedy does not blunt the message.
Finally, Reisman’s Louisville Exchange reaches back even further in time (1918) to illustrate early “party” telephone lines as the first communications technology to transform human relationships and social interaction for the worse.
The diverse cast seems game for anything, with energy to burn and invention to spare, but Are You There? fails to deliver any fresh or powerful insight into the implications of long-distance communication. The show’s strongest moments tend to occur when the writing, mostly from Norton, strays furthest from that theme. Still and all, it mostly makes for good entertainment, even if it appeared to promise more.
Are You There?
March 1 – April 12, 2020
Part of the 44th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.
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