Humana Festival is South By Southwest of theater world

Robbing the memory bank: (left to right) Emily Gunyou Halaas, Dominique Serrand, Megan Hill, Nathan Keepers
Harlan Taylor

It was with a considerable sense of dislocation that I found myself last Friday night watching one of the most resonant and evocative new works I've seen recently by Twin Cities theater artists. A number of familiar faces were onstage, and the playbill credited a team of writers from here in the tundra. But the ass that was in my seat wasn't in Minnesota; instead, I was a time zone away, in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville is the South by Southwest of the theater world, with all the attendant industry bonhomie and show-me-what-you-got giddiness. And after taking in more than a half-dozen works there, I feel bulletproof against charges of hometown boosterism in noting that the strongest thing I saw was the Workhaus/Jeune Lune hybrid Fissures (lost and found).

The action opened with a guileless fellow (Casey Greig) quizzing the audience about a set of lost keys he'd found; soon he sheepishly realized that the keys were his own. Following a monologue in which Greig led listeners down the familiar corridors of their own domestic lives, another player (Nathan Keepers) began to riff on his own missing keys, then his deceased wife, whom he spotted and followed one day into an empty house.

What followed was a high-wire blend of disarmingly oblique dialogue, exquisite bleached-white visuals, and a four-player cast circling an elliptical batch of story fragments that led to the same conclusion: the unreliability of memory, as well as its necessity in understanding our own narratives in a way that makes our continuing existence possible and coherent.

Fissures was that heavy—yet light as well. Later, Grieg arrived with a package for a woman (Emily Gunyou Halaas). When she opened it, she found a photo of her younger self, and a package of sweets whose taste evoked a European trip during the time the picture was taken. She tried to remember with whom she was traveling at the time: "Did I sleep with him? No.... I would remember that. Wouldn't I?"

In another passage, Keepers and Megan Hill portrayed grown siblings returned to their childhood house. The architecture of the place shifted with their memories, and a hole in the stage led down into a blatantly metaphorical sub-basement. They recalled their father's rages, the way he would shout and storm in the halls, the way he died on the floor—even as they continually questioned if that's precisely the way it really happened.

By this point, the show nailed down (in language reminiscent of Beckett) each audience member's own squishy relationship with the musty halls of memory, and the narrative context behind what drives the everyday. The team that made this is unique: The show is a collaboration between Workhaus writers Cory Hinkle, Dominic Orlando, Deborah Stein, and Victoria Stewart, along with Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Steve Epp and former artistic director Dominique Serrand (Serrand directed the production).

Fissures was remarkable for its palpable sense of moving the Jeune Lune aesthetic forward into new, enlivened districts of heart and head. Talking about the show at the festival over the weekend, a surprising theme emerged: Everyone who loved the show felt as though it was directed specifically at their own relationship with memories and identity.

"My approach from the beginning was that I wanted to do a very honest piece," says Serrand, in the offices of Actors Theatre, about directing the work. "That colored everything. I didn't want us to try to be clever, but to be as humanly smart as we can."

Serrand himself appeared onstage at the end of the one-hour show, dispensing a haunted (and haunting) monologue before closing out the night with a bit of legerdemain that effectively tied together the fractured strands of what came before.

When asked if he plans to recreate the work for Twin Cities audiences, Serrand chuckles quietly.

"I'd love to do it," he says. "But I'm a little bit at the mercy of who wants to invite me." 

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