FG reviews: PDX Playwrights Week 1

The consortium hits Fertile Ground running with 17 shows in process

Antoine Watteau, "Actors from the Comedie Francaise" (1720)/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Antoine Watteau, “Actors from the Comedie Francaise” (1720)/Metropolitan Museum of Art

By A.L. ADAMS

PDX Playwrights, a writers and actors consortium, gets an A+ for participation in Fertile Ground. Presenting staged readings of 17 19 titles by almost as many writers, the group uses the forum to both show off and refine its craft. ArtsWatch caught most of this week’s offerings, which—predictably—evoked mixed feelings. Here are some initial impressions of the fledgling works’ transition from page to stage:

“Hail”

Sally Sunbear’s script starts out strong, with the arrogant Aries and the aloof Aphrodite verbally sparring about the relative merits of love and war in a twisting Elizabethan tongue rich with poetic metaphor. Within a few bars, the dialogue dissolves into unmemorable song and markedly plainer speech. Is this because we’re now hearing from the gods’ servants, or simply because the play opens stronger than it proceeds? We’ll only know once the rest of the piece premieres on February 3.

“Just Add Love”

In Debbie Lamedman’s modern dating scene, a man and woman’s first meeting in a coffee shop exposes the peril of playing it TOO cool. A casual rejection, a cell phone interruption and an offhanded goodbye usher out what might otherwise have become true love. Great comic timing transforms what could’ve been mundane into nuanced theatrics.

6727812097_c97a2f222e“Think About It”

Kate Belden’s absurdist romance-novel parody presents us with a throbbing, swooning, preening, posing pair of lovers apparently ripped from a Harlequin cover and aptly and romantically named Paulo and Viviana. At odds with their steamy antics is the narrator who, despite wishing to identify with the carefree and passionate Viviana, can’t help but voice her doubts about the hackneyed details of the lovers’ story. In the ensuing volleys of back-sass between romantic heroine and pragmatic narrator, many relevant questions are raised, but the conclusion rings less satisfyingly than the dilemmas (literally) posed.

“Cranial Camaraderie”

Part of Brad Bolchunos’ “Umbrella for Three,” this witty and unpredictable coffeeshop vignette pits a crisp British woman against her critical and snarky ex. A dumbfounded barista looks on as both parties reveal their respective clairvoyant powers and instigate the ultimate head-game: psychic warfare. This script is a standout: the novelty and slapstick amazingly never upstage its astute observation of human nature.

“March”

In sharp contrast to her whimsical romance-novel sketch, Kate Belden presented a heavy two-hour drama that follows a respected neuroscience professor through an ironically fitting crisis: a stroke accompanied by a cerebral hematoma. Resentful, restless and embittered by what she DOES know about her diminished capabilities, the workaholic prof is forced for the first time in her life to reach out for help. Enter three men: a current university colleague, her physician and former lover, and the spectre of her “Papa,” a wise grandfather who reminds her of a long-forgotten lesson from children’s allegory “The Velveteen Rabbit”: to become “real” and receive love, you may have to soften up and let go of a little dignity. Though Belden is still actively woodshedding the script, soliciting audience feedback both positive and negative to make her final refinements, her ambitious play is extremely promising, comparable to the Pulitzer-winning “Wit” in its ability to humanize the complex considerations of illness and career identity in middle-age.

“Lying in Judgment” and “The Exes”

Playwright Gary Corbin presented two works back-to-back—the first a long jury-room drama, the second a short romantic comedy. “They have a common thread: trust and fidelity,” he explained to some audience members. But this reviewer observed a different point of comparison: both tales revealed their surprises to the audience early on, then put characters through their paces to “get it” much later. In the rom-com format, this process was fun! We knew something that the characters didn’t know, and their witty-but-believable quips only deepened the embarrassment that we, the audience, gigglingly sensed was in store for them when they finally put it all together.

However. In the jury drama, the device of early-breaking revelation became a cumbersome burden. Right away, one juror hipped us to a case-cracking secret. Like this crooked juror, we knew too much from the start. Even so, we were stuck in a room with these jerks for what seemed like forever, listening to their petty personal sniping and their ornately detailed and completely misguided impressions of the case. There’s a reason people hate jury duty, and this play recreated it: You walk into the room with an opinion, you usually maintain it, but you still have to go through the motions and humor a bunch of strangers’ biased and broad wishy-washing before you finally get to conclude. Furthermore, the script failed (at least in this juror’s opinion) to fully establish motive for its lead character’s behavior—in fact, he seemed to act counter to his interests by oversharing.

“Ladies Room” and “Where Are We Going?”

Susan Faust’s linguistically and environmentally disorienting works ask the big existential questions in seemingly innocuous circumstances. In “Where Are We Going?” a dialogue between a depressed man and an (ahem) “retired” sailing coach takes place in a seeming purgatory, where a single dangling rope is the main mutual point of conversation. The piece has an unfinished feeling—but to be fair, that’s in keeping with its theme.

“Ladies Room”—more satisfying thanks to its humor and its more starkly-drawn dichotomy—takes place in a women’s restroom at a performing arts center. As a bevy of well-meaning women cycle through and do their business, one voice on the fringes testifies to her faltering belief in God, her crippling loneliness and her blinding, numbing physical and social desperation. Try as she might, this poor soul can’t crack the sugar surface of the other ladies’ social brulee. She’s met by raised eyebrows, casual concern and plucky attempts to change the subject back to superficial chit-chat.

“Fortune Cookies”

Donna Barrow-Green and her actors really “get” office romance, from the slowly-dawning camaraderie to the paralyzing suppression of sexual impulse in favor of casual professionalism. Alexander and Gretchen are both perched on the edge of their seats, trying to play it cool and wait for a sign. Are they just imagining it? Will somebody please break the ice? What does the horoscope or the fortune cookie say? Though it flirts heavily with romcom cliché and holds few surprises, this short is undeniably engaging, lighthearted and universal.

“Oh Heritage Tree”

Did Heather Thiel watch “Portlandia” while dropping acid? This intentionally absurd neighborhood comedy satirizes tropes that are Portland-er than Portland: midwifery, heritage houses, alterna-learning, homosexual nesting, chicken coops, free boxes and pirate bands. Perhaps there are more characters and plot points than necessary. Like homemade shade canopies at Pickathon, this short stretches haphazardly over many moments of amusement and is loosely tethered to a tree.

ArtsWatch plans to catch Brad Bolchunos’ “Umbrella for Three” at its second showing next week, during the second weekend of PDX Playwrights shows. “The Godmother” by Sandra de Helen is a show we unfortunately missed. Interested parties, please alert us the next time it resurfaces.

One Response.

  1. Kate Belden says:

    Thank you so much for coming out to see us, and thank you for the very thoughtful review. I don’t suppose you were a small part of the audience that thought the ‘here, here, here’ part was just the perfect length? Hopefully PDXP will see you again this festival, at least to give me the chance to shake your hand.
    Kate Belden
    playwrite, MARCH

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