JAW fest: Made in Oregon, Day One is dreamy

Andrea Stolowitz

This weekend I resolved to spend some serious time with “Made in Oregon,” the portion of Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival devoted to developing new plays by local playwrights.  Next week the heavy hitters from out of town arrive, but the number of local playwrights with talent and imagination has reached a sort of critical mass in recent years. So, I went into the weekend with high expectations.

But first, some ground rules. The JAW festival presents staged readings of plays that are still in process. No sets, costumes, props nor special effects and very basic lighting. The actors and directors have some time to work together with the playwright, but mostly they are reading their parts from a script, meaning that no stage action has been blocked. In short, it is impossible to “review” the work, especially because the scripts may change drastically from what we see and hear onstage.

DAY ONE

The two plays that hit the stage on Saturday were  Antarktikos, by Andrea Stolowitz, and Forky, by Matt Zrebski.  I would categorize them as “anti-materialist” plays, meaning that they argue against considering the world simply as a series of causes that arise from a series of effects, whether physical, social or biological. In their worlds, impossible connections become possible; the world’s various membranes are more porous than they appear.

The primary vehicle for these connections is the dream. So, in Artarktikos, the main character Susan, lands in a coma and has a dream, and in that dream she encounters the dreaming version of South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott. It’s a pretty vivid dream. Scott is very excited about her packets of Beef Stroganoff, not to mention her Eggs Florentine. (Days without food will do that.) And later that same dream state will prove useful again.

Matthew B. Zrebski

Stolowitz’s play concerns death and so, in a way, is Zrebski’s, though his is a bit more abstract, not to mention overtly absurd. Death to Zrebski happens any time a decision is made, any time one fork is taken instead of another. Except that it isn’t really, because the road not chosen actually DOES happen, just in a parallel universe, where all possibilities are pursued.  A prime example of a decision not taken? The success of one sperm cell and the failure of another. Forky has a LOT of good, messy fun with that one, but it also focuses attention on the limbo space before the decision — say, the declaration of sexual identity. And it seems to say that the limbo space can be revisited, through dreams, say, or memories or reveries.

OK, these are plays, not philosophy. They have plots and characters, and the characters say funny things, such as this line from Antarktikos on the lowly Ho-Ho: “It may be the best food that exists that has a shelf life of 60 years.” I’m not sure this is literally true. Forky is especially comic, as you can tell from the name of one of the characters — the Sperm Coroner. And the crowds for both plays seemed to enjoy them a lot, if we just go by audible audience response.

After their run-throughs, I talked to both playwrights briefly, and both were satisfied by what they’d seen. The audiences tracked the plays easily, laughed at the right times and quieted at the right times. A playwright with a new play needs this sort of re-assurance.

Stolowitz said that her play has already gone through four readings, the most important being the first, with local play doctor Mead Hunter and director Gemma Whelan, and the second at Artists Repertory Theatre. Those two led to major revisions, including the collapse of the first act into one scene. Antarktikos was selected for a staged reading by the prestigious New Harmony Project in Indiana and it is slated for at least three more readings in coming months. At some point in the process, Stolowitz’s agent will start sending the play out for consideration for full productions by major theater companies.

She’s hoping that the mother-daughter relationship at the center of the play will prove attractive to big national companies, but she would prefer to work locally. Since moving here from Durham, N.C., where she led the play and film writing department at Duke University, (her husband teaches physics at Reed College), she has embraced Portland. “I love it here, love the people I work with, love the acting community. I’m marketing my plays nationally, but I’d really rather work here. Both she and Zrebski are members of Playwrights West, which is hoping to start producing full productions of plays by its members: “There are plays by local playwrights that need to be done.”

Zrebski’s Forky hasn’t had the amount of development time that Antarktikos has had, so he was especially gratified that the big Saturday night crowd was appreciative, or in his words, “tracking the surreal complexity of the play.” Did we mention that a dead sperm is a character? He said that he doesn’t necessarily believe in alternate universes himself — “I call myself a militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t know either” — but he observes that our knowledge of various brain states, including dreams, is very sketchy and that subliminal spaces very well might exist.

Zrebski, who moved here from Texas 14 years ago, considers himself a Portlander and wants to work locally, too, like Stolowitz, and he’ll send Forky out on a trail similar to that of Antarktikos.

 

 

 

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