Every year, slipped in among the other world premieres of Actors Theater’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, there is a play created to showcase the 20 members of that season’s Professional Training Company. The PTC is a group of actors at the beginning of their careers who come to Louisville for a year of learning the ropes, getting experience with a professional company and doing a good bit of grunt work for each show.
Four playwrights are commissioned to create an evening of short theatrical works and bind them together in a sometimes surreal and generally stream-of-conscious single work designed to showcase the acting abilities of the company.
And each year’s show is loosely organized around a theme, with this year’s “You Across From Me” exploring what happens when people gather around a table. It’s a delightful but uneven evening, a pretty usual outcome for these shows.
Some pieces don’t quite work, some pieces feel like truncated pieces of longer works, but some pieces are the baby bear’s bed: Just right.
“The Prologue” and “The Epilogue” (written by Jason Gray Platt) are framing devices, and while the evening must have some kind of skeleton for it to hang together, it would have been nice if this frame had a little more meat on its bones.
Regardless, it’s a pleasing introduction and exit from the action. Written in verse, it’s a good indication of the whimsy that will permeate a lot of the evening.
That whimsy is continued in Platt’s “Mabel and Clare,” a no-apologies, full-on clown piece.
In classic style, the heroine Mabel (Marika Proctor) wordlessly seeks to solve a simple problem, but instead creates an escalating series of disasters while she prepares for a date with Clare (Nayib Felix).
Proctor and Felix show off excellent skill in both physical comedy and timing.
“A Date With the Family,” from playwright Dipika Guha, stretches across three installments throughout the evening. Given the space to grow, it’s the most complex piece in “You Across From Me.” It focuses on a family, seemingly ripped straight from some 1950s commercial or educational video.
The announcer (Bear Brummel) narrates the action as the family gets ready for dinner. The action subverts the tropes of its source material, and while that subversion is expected, it’s accomplished with humorous intelligence and a mounting tension that manages to prove the worth of a conceit that could have fallen flat in a less capable playwright’s hands.
Diversity, Inclusion,” by Brian Otaño, uses humor and a uniquely theatrical device to examine the kinds of micro-aggressions corporations and large nonprofits can subject people to as the companies seek to fill quotas in their diversity — I mean inclusion — initiatives.
I won’t spoil the device, because being confused is part of the fun, but it manages to be funny, upsetting and intriguing, with some great role reversal and status changes as the characters navigate a stiff business environment.
It also provides the actors of the Training Company a great opportunity to show off opposite ends of their emotional range. That’s not strictly speaking a facet of great theater, but it’s hard not to appreciate the way Otaño folded that rubric of the playwright’s commission into his theme so neatly.
“Mother’s Blessing” (by Guha) and “The National Foosball Championships” (by Jaclyn Backhaus) could have used a little more stage time, and they offer two very different subversions of well-trod genres.
“Mother’s Blessing” substituted a matriarchal, Puritan-esque and seemingly abusive mother for the controlling patriarch we’re used to seeing in those sorts of dystopias. The stark slice of action hinted at a larger world that needs more exploring.
“The National Foosball Championships” serves up the final scene of a buffoonish sports comedy centered around foosball. Backhaus subverts the masculinity of the genre with cutting wit. She employs broadly comedic feminism, huge and obvious.
By doing so, she’s smartly generating a glorious antithesis of the un-subtleties that rule the male-dominated reality of the genre.
Part of the purpose may be to suggest that the first hour-and-a-half of such comedies is pretty unnecessary to telling those kinds of by-the-numbers underdog stories.
But if someone wants to make a full-length movie of this, I’m already in line with popcorn, assuming there’s a studio willing to let this satirical view of toxic masculinity keep its teeth.
“You Across From Me” has just one more showing on Friday, April 6, at 11 p.m. There’s always a particular joy to seeing these Training Company shows later in the evening, as if an alternate universe where art is way more respected than it is in America has sent us its version of late-night TV.
The Humana Festival continues through April 6. Tickets start at $29. See Insider’s reviews of other Humana Festival plays: