LOUISVILLE -- Beds. Little beds, big beds, hospital beds, upright beds, torture-chamber beds. Beds, it seems, are the theme of the 16th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Playwrights and critics from around the world, talent agents from New York and movie scouts from Hollywood gathered at Actors Theatre of Louisville last weekend to watch 11 shows in the 50-hour Special Visitors Weekend marathon.
Six of the plays are full length, two are one-acts and three are 10-minute plays. A majority have beds.
But this is no ordinary Serta Perfect Sleeper plug. We are born in bed, have sex in bed, die in bed, spend more time in bed than anywhere else. All of these things happen in plays at the festival.
In the past, the festival has helped spawn plays like "Agnes of God," "Crimes of the Heart" and "Extremities." Every year, it is seen as a barometer of the American theater.
This year, millennial apocalypse, racial and sexual ambiguity, love, history and old age are being explored. The plays are torn between writers' tendency to be nonnarrative and audiences' desire for a story.
Continuing its recent (and often questioned) policy of commissioning well-known writers (David Henry Hwang and Marsha Norman) with big-time dollars (up to $20,000), the Louisville festival has a couple of certifiably good plays, a few mediocre ones and a couple of stinkers.
The person everyone wanted to meet: B. D. Wong, the actor who won a Tony Award for playing a man who pretended to be a woman in Mr. Hwang's "M. Butterfly."
The quirkiest event: the contest for 10-minute plays. It's an odd art form, but this year the contest served up a funny play by Jane Anderson, a brutal one by Lanford Wilson and a morbid one by Joyce Carol Oates.
Here are the major plays. You may hear of some of them again.
Fueled by the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the rock 'n' roll of Lou Reed, Puerto Rico-born Jose Rivera (co-creator of NBC's "Eerie, Indiana") has written an apocalyptic mystery play set in the bowels of New York.
Marisol (Spanish for "sea and sky") works in glittering Manhattan, but still lives in a Bronx tenement. She prays every night, "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on."
Barely escaping attacks on her way home, Marisol discovers she has a guardian angel.
But this angel is a leather-jacketed, Uzi-toting revolutionary who says the world is in trouble because God is senile and must be killed.
Marisol's life is plunged into chaos. Her best friend is attacked and turns into a Nazi who burns bums alive. The 15 locks on Marisol's door fall off and in strides a crazy man wielding a golf club. The moon disappears, apples are extinct and Visigoths surround the city.
Brutal, shocking, appalling and hilarious, the story is a retelling of the old myth: The old gods must die and be resurrected.
As you walk out of the theater, you know you've been somewhere. But will you make it back? Grade: A.
* "D. Boone"
Playwright Marsha Norman (" 'night, Mother," "The Secret Garden" has spent much of her career denying she is a Kentuckian. With "D. Boone," she re-embraces her home. And she wriggles out of the restrictive "feminist playwright" trap.
Commissioned by the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels for the state's bicentennial, "D. Boone" demystifies American hero Daniel Boone (he didn't carve his name in trees and he was just a regular fella) and tells a modern-day romance.
Flo is a troubled woman, going out with a mechanic who's already married to someone else. She, too, has found another lover, at work.
She is a curator in a Louisville history museum who falls for Daniel Boone. She walks into a tepee in the museum and magically transports herself to frontier Kentucky.
Along comes Hilly. He's been sentenced to work in the museum after he defaced a statue of Boone, whom he thinks is overrated.
Flo quits her job and heads back into the past, followed by Hilly; her mechanic boyfriend, Rick; and her boss at the museum, Mr. Simpson.
Hilly challenges Boone to a fight for Flo, Rick kills a buffalo and gay Mr. Simpson is the hero of the Battle of Boonesborough.
Along the way, Norman deftly makes us laugh about her favorite subject, heroes:
"Fixing a guy's transmission ain't exactly a heroic act," says Rick.
"It is if it's really fixed," replies Flo.
You don't need to look into the past or even outside your own life to find real heroes. Grade: B+.
* "The Old Lady's Guide to Survival"
Mayo Simon tells a sweet story about two elderly ladies who come to depend on each other to survive.
It is touching and humorous as long as it lasts, and a wonderful vehicle for a pair of older actresses. But once it is over, little of it stays with you.
It's "Octette Bridge Club," 1992.
Netty is fiercely independent but is losing her eyesight. She doesn't trust anyone ("The world is full of good, sweet, trusting people --they're all underground.").