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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cesar Padilla hits the Humana Festival...

Unlikely though it is, given its red-state location, the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, is one of the country's most prestigious forums for new American plays, attracting the best contemporary playwrights from far and wide. With plans to be in the area—and a theater critic only in the sense that this was my fifth time attending the festival—I decided to catch three of the eight plays on offer.

First, the negative review. The Break/s, by Marc Bumuthi Joseph, was billed as an autobiographical odyssey set to a hip-hop soundtrack. Fair enough, but before the show started, his drummer walked around the stage and asked a mostly Caucasian audience what they thought about "white people in hip hop." In true dorky fashion, most responded with the unimaginative, "I think it's great!" I was bothered by this for some time; it was so vanilla. Joseph is a talented-enough performer, but his artsy-fartsy journey out of the Bronx—not to mention the experimental, Alvin-Aileyesque dance moves—is an exercise in what's wrong with hip hop today: there's too much and it's too broad. Modern hip hop has become a verbal, sonic and visual case of diarrhea.

On the other hand, the other two new plays I saw were outstanding. In Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, new playwright Jennifer Haley blurred the line between reality and video games, crafting an incredible suburban nightmare in which soulless children stare into the void and annihilate their parents.

And finally, an irreverent little love story called Becky Shaw appears to be the breakout play of the season, a hysterical roller coaster focusing on Max, a waspy self-made man holding a financially strapped family together. When his half-sister and her husband set him up with the tarty title character, portrayed by a flawless Annie Parisse, the damage becomes pleasantly irreparable.