Vital Signs

One Flea Spare & Other New Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville started its new play festival 20 years ago—that's a long life in the American theater, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays achieved institution status several seasons back. Unfortunately, the festival is now a little like a fully endowed congregation that no longer has to look to itself to underwrite its annual operating budget. The altar flowers are beautiful, but the spirit is wanting.

There were two good full-length plays this year and some entertaining shorts, and ATL deserves credit for regularly producing new work. Most theaters cannot, or think they cannot, afford to. But there is more good work out there than ATL is finding, and I am convinced a festival that has been so-so in recent years could be so much better. Part of the problem may be in the way the festival is organized. ATL's practice now is to commission plays from established (or at least working) playwrights, and well known journalists or novelists. That sounds like a good idea, and sometimes works, but more often it does not. This year, for example, the biggest names wrote the shortest plays, some of them nice but sketches at best. Also this year, as has happened before, one of the best plays (One Flea Spare) was originally produced elsewhere, which means ATL cannot take the credit for fostering it.

Every season I wish once again that ATL would return to its original practice of holding an...

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