Humana Festival of New American Plays 2013 | Gnit, O Guru Guru Guru and Cry Old Kingdom
Gnit, the last play I saw Sunday afternoon at the 37th Humana Festival, is classic Will Eno. By that, I mean I was thrilled by it, but another critic seated in front of me loudly declared it "shit" before walking out at intermission. The premiere is helmed by Actors Theatre of Louisville artistic director Les Waters, who directed Eno's similarly divisive Middletown at Steppenwolf in 2011. Eno's latest is a loose comic adaptation of Ibsen's unwieldy Peer Gynt, itself based on Norwegian folklore. Ibsen's Peer is the son of a man ruined by his indulgences, who rather than face his own reality and responsibilities travels the world aimlessly in search of meaning. Eno's Peter Gnit (Dan Waller) is similarly abdicative; he explains the origin of his surname as being a typo the family just came to accept.
The playwright applies his trademarked sly and slippery language games in his depiction of Peter's increasingly poor decisions and the disappointment of his long-suffering mother (Linda Kimbrough). In one particularly inspired move, Eno conflates the crowds of citizens who mock and harass Peter into a single role named Town, handled here with terrific multiple-personality comic brio by Danny Wolohan. Chicago actor Kimbrough's broad streak is an ideal match for Mother, while fellow Chicagoan Waller is simply tremendous in conveying Peter's guileless total self-involvement. Consider Eno's script as a musical score, and Waller seems to be quite brilliantly playing a half-step behind the meter; it's as if Peter, in his search for "a true self," actually exists on a separate plane from those around him.
Pavement Group artistic associate Mallery Avidon's O Guru Guru Guru, or why I don't want to go to yoga class with you opened my Saturday slate. The 90-minute piece comprises three distinct movements. The first is presented as a lecture presented by an apparent a stand-in for the playwright (portrayed by Rebecca Hart), who relates how her ambivalence about the time she spent as a tween and teen living on an ashram after her mother became an acolyte of the spiritual practice of Siddha Yoga ties into her aversion to the modern popularity of lululemon-clad Eat, Pray, Love yoga.
In the second portion, audience volunteers are invited to sit on the stage as four female followers of yoga's spiritual side give a convention-hall style presentation on presence and meditation, including a shadow-puppet recounting of the creation of Ganesh. In the final third, Hart's character returns to wrestle with her feelings in a surprising new setting. The playwright's juxtaposition of forms, along with the inclusion of a quasi-religious service, called to mind for me the work of Avidon's contemporary, Young Jean Lee. Yet there's really nothing in the way of dramatic conflict, and at least in this premiere production, helmed by rising director Lila Neugebauer, the parts seem too disparate to convey Avidon's intent. Despite appealing work by Hart and Khrystyne Haje, who embodies an unexpected sounding board in the final third, the project as a whole feels off-puttingly academic.
Jeff Augustin's Cry Old Kingdom also features captivating performances, though the play ultimately seems undercooked. The author, currently a second-year M.F.A. candidate in playwriting at the University of California–San Diego (where Waters once led the M.F.A. directing program), sets his work in 1964 Haiti, where the dictatorial regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier has forced artist Edwin (Andy Lucien) to go into hiding, allowing the world to think he's dead while his wife, former carnaval dancer Judith (Natalie Paul), makes a meager living with a booth at the local market. When Edwin spots a young peasant named Henri Marx (Jonathan Majors) attempting to build a boat to escape to the U.S., it awakens something in the artist, who allows Henri to use his studio as a workshop in exchange for letting Edwin paint him.
Yet in spite of the clear high stakes in Augustin's 80-minute piece, directed by Tom Dugdale, the pacing seems far too languid in the first hour and too rushed in the frantic climactic moments. The playwright places suggestions of character motivations that never play out, and fails to lay groundwork for the actions they ultimately do take. Perhaps that's meant as an illustration of individual volatility under intense political pressures, but in its current form Kingdom just feels arbitrary and vaguely dissatisfying.