Humana Theater Festival Report | Santa Barbara Independent


The 41st annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville started with “crying it out” and ended with the assertion that “we’re going to be okay.” Those bookend titles accurately encompassed the wide range of funny, poignant and hard-hitting plays seen at the festival this year. With the impending demise of the National Endowment for the Arts potentially leading to the defunding of multitudes of artistic institutions, there was a loaded call to – as Molly Smith Metzler said — “ask the big questions” at this year’s festival. Artistic director Les Waters and Associate Director Meredith McDonough, along with their savvy team of associates, compiled an eclectic, moving collection of commissions and new works to be performed in rep on their three stages. Humana, according to Waters, is “always evolving according to the shows we have the passion to do each year…what interests me when they are all put together is how people will detect something that wasn’t there necessarily consciously.” Staples of the season include an ensemble showcase of the nineteen apprentice actors and a talk with a leading national figure in the theatre. This year that role went to none other than the demi-god Taylor Mac.

For those who want to rock and roll all night and party every day – or for those whose dream of being in a Sprite commercial wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – Chelsea Marcantel’s Airness may have the answer. In this show, the pursuit is less about simple rock and roll and more about the work’s elusive title: Airness. It might have something to do with the fact that as hard as everyone rocks in the piece, there isn’t a single guitar onstage.

Cast of “Airness” | Photo by Bill Brymer

By entering her first air guitar competition, Nina dives into a personal and professional rabbit hole that’s deeper than she could have imagined. Deb O’s brilliantly seedy set seduced audience members into taking that deep dive right along with Nina. Coupled with McDonough’s vivacious, skillful direction, the set sparked a gleam in many an eye – a twinkling with desire to maybe try one’s own unpracticed hands at this airness business. “Everything is real, which I really appreciate.” said Meredith McDonough of the bar turned arena theater. The thrust stage showcased the fabulously committed and enchanting performances of the ensemble. Brian Quijada perfectly captures the guy we all love to hate and hate to love. Radiating a kind of Jay and Silent Bob best-friend potential coupled with nuanced, quirky excavations of each brilliant strange bird – the ensemble shines. Nate Miller’s heartwarming Ed refuses to grow up, Marc Pierre’s charismatic Golden Thunder moves for world peace, Angelina Impellizzeri’s Cannibal Queen lets down her walls and gets ugly, and Lucas Papaelias’ facemelter wears his heart on his shirtless sleeve. Each character moves us further into the core of the piece: “How to actually let people in.” For both Mcdonough and Marcantel, theatre became their tribe where this very journey took place. Each remembers their first stints in the community theatre feeling like home – something this gaggle of misfits builds around and with our Airness protagonist. As we traverse this brand new world of invisible wonders, Nina, played by the gifted Marinda Anderson- journeys with us. What is the perfect piece? How does one achieve airness?

For this important question we turn to Matt Burns- four time reigning United States Air Guitar Champion. Burns makes appearances and plays the emcee throughout the play. According to McDonough, Burns has an “A level of self-confidence that breeds generosity.” His input undoubtedly fortified the palpable commitment of the team to the live action role playing world of air guitar. “You have to not be judging it…in no way shape or form is the piece ever making fun of air guitar” Marcantel said of her play. She is right. In Airness, air guitar serves as a catalyst for a profound journey away from righteous anger and towards love of self. “I know what it is like to be a person who is new to a thing and to be helped out by the people who are inside of it” said Marcantel. Her piece serves as a celebration of community building, a call for female empowerment, and a cry for the continuation of arts education. In this moment, I can think of nothing better. If you are looking for an amazing piece of theatre that will get you on your feet tapping, wailing and clapping in mid-air – while also moving you to reflect on and care for yourself – look no further; this bad boy is for you.

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