Cast of nightnight by Lucas Hnath. Photo by Bill Brymer

Sleep Rock Thy Brain

By Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn

Conceived by Amy Attaway and Sarah Lunnie

Directed by Amy Attaway

Flying effects by ZFX, Inc., lead choreographer Brian Owens


Review by Keith Waits

Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

For the past few years the Humana Festival has included a showcase for the Apprentice Acting Company, an evening of original material developed around a theme or idea. As the title makes clear, sleep – or more accurately, the elusiveness of sleep – is this year’s theme, and some unusual staging is provided by ZFX, Inc., the Louisville-based theatrical effects company that “flies” people.

As dreamed up by Amy Attaway and Sarah Lunnie, the show consists of three short plays with some transitional material in between. In Comfort Inn, by Rinne Groff, three squirrelly participants in a sleep study are monitored by a couple of techs: one a seasoned, cynical rule-bender, Angela (Tamara Del Ross); the other, a neophyte named Sylvie (Madison Welterlen) who is infatuated with the supervising scientist, Dr. Abramovitch. The premise is off to a good start as the dynamic between the highly eccentric subjects and the conflicting techs is established. But when the lab, located on one floor of a hotel, is invaded by newlyweds and a few of their drunken wedding party, the energy is thrown out of focus, even if the plot thickens.

Still, there is good observation to the playing among much of the cast, and the humor engages the audience. By the time a moment of fantasy is introduced, in which Sylvie and Dr. Abramovitch gracefully dance hand-in-hand above our heads, the story has won us over.

In Anne Washburn’s Dreamerwake, a large cast plays young actors training to work with the flying system featured in all three stories. Although they are all playing fictional characters, the merging of fiction and reality is obvious enough to invite the audience to believe they are witnessing a nearly improvised reenactment of what we could easily imagine was the experience of rehearsing Sleep Rock Thy Brain. References to the actual flight choreographer and the Main Street location of the Lincoln Performing Arts School reinforce the illusion of behind-the-scenes drama. A muddled opening seems to establish the succeeding action as occurring within a dream. But whatever the context, this second script never seems fully formed, with too much Meta and not enough meat. It serves as an effective primer on the flying system employed in delightful service to the entire evening, but it suffers from being sandwiched between two more interesting stories.

The evening closes with Lucas Hnath’s enigmatic nightnight. The story of one insomniac astronaut and what his profound fatigue means for his fellow astronauts and their mission is a compelling and cryptic tale that also seems not fully developed. The structure of the text is vividly made manifest in the staging, and the presentation of the weightlessness in a zero gravity environment is easily the most dramatically effective use of the flying system that dominates the action in all three plays, not only because it logically emulates the expected reality of the experience of spaceflight, but for how it evokes the alienation and entropy in the story. The script is the most fully realized of the three, although it promises so much that I could not help but wonder if the concept could not be pushed a bit further. It also features some of the best performances of the evening from the three actors playing the astronauts – Samantha Beach; Ethan Dubin; and, most especially, Jeff White, whose somnambular tone seems just right.

The Apprentice shows during the Humana Festival are typically high energy, crowd-pleasing affairs, and there was much to like about this production. Yet the reliance on the ZFX system, while fascinating, seems to become too much the focus, sometimes overwhelming the intent of the action within the text. Still it prompted this worthwhile collaboration of Louisville theatre arts groups and is brilliantly employed in the final piece. And let‘s not ignore the appropriateness of a theatre experience about sleeplessness that boasts an 11:00 p.m. curtain time.


Sleep Rock Thy Brain

Part of the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays

March 22 – April 7, 2013

Actors Theatre of Louisville at

Lincoln Elementary School

930 East Main Street

Louisville, KY 40206

(502) 584-1205