Seeing tomorrow’s subscription season today at Louisville’s Humana Festival | Chicago Reader

The seedbed for new plays has a winner in Chelsea Marcantel’s Airness.

Lucas Papaelias and Marinda Anderson in “Airness” by Chelsea Marcantel, part of the 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. (photo by Bill Brymer)

by Tony Adler

I missed the 40th annual new plays festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville last year—just like I missed the 39 before it. So I made time this spring for the 41st edition of what’s officially known as the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Louisville’s not that far away, after all, it’s never short of bourbon, and the event itself can boast some remarkable stats. For instance: three fest-produced plays have won Pulitzer Prizes (The Gin Game, Crimes of the Heart, and Dinner With Friends), while three more were finalists for it. Playwrights from old master Marsha Norman (Getting Out, 1978) to hot millennials Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, 2013) and Lucas Hnath (The Christians, 2014) have had their work shown there.

As a title like Crimes of the Heart suggests, the festival (which ended April 9) isn’t known for pushing the envelope. It excels at releasing new scripts into the mainstream. That Hnath play, The Christians, went from Louisville to New York’s Playwrights Horizons, and from there to Steppenwolf Theatre; Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate had its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens during the fall following its Humana debut. Louisville, in short, is the place to see tomorrow’s subscription-season selections today.

The play I most look forward to finding on some local company’s season roster is Chelsea Marcantel‘s Airness, a sweet-natured, even cornball, look at competitive air guitarists. There’s a plot involving newbie Nina, who’s got ulterior motives for joining the coast-to-coast round of regional competitions leading to the national championship. But the beating heart of the piece is the tiny counterculture inhabited by her oddball peers—a band of losers with exalted noms-de-air like Golden Thunder, Shreddy Eddy, Facebender, and Cannibal Queen.

Given the conventions governing stories like this one, it goes without saying that the airistas are hiding their hurt and doing their best to evade adulthood, that Nina will find an unexpected sense of community among them, and that reigning champ D Vicious will get his comeuppance for selling out by endorsing Sprite. What makes Airness’s banalities easy to take is the luxurious amount of room Marcantel opens up around them, to be filled with dignity and delight. Her characters may be amusing, but they’re not punch lines. They’ve got self-awareness and honor—plus righteous skills. The next-biggest pleasure after getting to know them is watching them go creatively nuts to tracks by groups ranging from the Ramones to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The D Vicious in Meredith McDonough’s fest production, by the way, was Brian Quijada, who kicked ass doing “Crazy Train” and can be seen now at Victory Gardens in his own autobiographical solo show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?. One of Quijada’s Airness castmates was an ass kicker on a whole other level: Matt Burns, the actual reigning U.S. air guitar champion.

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