JAW festival, Day Two: Twisted science and celebrity

Jupiter: big planet or failed star?

After Day One of Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, everyone seemed to have the routine down: We gathered 15 minutes or so before show time, lined up in the lobby of the Armory Building (and sometimes outside onto the sidewalk), and then relatively quickly made our way inside. The 4 p.m. start time was a little tricky — the Armory’s cafe seemed pretty busy because we could take a warm, caffeinated beverage into the theater, which I know from personal experience.

I had already seen an earlier incarnation of Patrick Wohlmut’s “Continuum,” which opened Day Two of the JAW festival’s “Made in Oregon” weekend. I’d even written a bit about it, so I thought I knew what to expect. But the actors were different, Wohlmut had made some changes since 2009 and honestly, my memory is just not that good, though I did recall the basics.

“Continuum” is the result of a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds new plays that have a scientific or technological theme or characters, and it does have doses of science and math, specifically astrophysics. Wohlmut got the idea for his main character from one of his college astronomy professors, a smart man, Wohlmut says, who had burned out on the academic life. The professor offered the idea to the class that some scientists believe Jupiter was a failed star. After a little research, Wohlmut discovered that this notion had been disproven by a space probe five years earlier, and when I talked to him Sunday, he was still a little outraged at this.

Patrick Wohlmut sees stars.

So, yes, a scientist interested in Jupiter’s “starhood” is right in the middle of “Continuum.” But this scientist knows he’s wrong and presses on with the theory. Weirdly, another failed academic, a former math prodigy, has singled out the professor for a scam, and pretty soon their pasts and presents start to entwine. The action unfolds in a series of head-to-head conversations between the scam artist, now in prison, and the scientist, trying to get some sort of revenge. But what’s really at stake are those complicated psychological histories. Flashbacks figure prominently and the scene cuts come fast and furious. As director Stan Foote said, “It’s a piece for an intelligent audience.” Which is fortunately what he got, of course!

“Continuum” is slated for a full production by the Playwrights West collective (Wohlmut is a founding member) once funding can be secured. In the meantime, he sees some things he wants to work on before rehearsals start, maybe some time in 2012, if things work out. But he and Foote were pleased with the response of the JAW audience, which seemed to track the play’s jumps without problems, even without the benefit of design clues.

Brian Kettler (who as a 14-year-old performed in a Portland Center Stage production of “A Christmas Story”) offered that audience a little trickery of his own in “Personal,” a parody of celebrity culture that seemed straightforward enough to start with and then took a hard turn toward the darker side of things. It’s a comedy, mostly, until then with send-ups of celebrity “journalists,” teen stars, their producers and their fans. Oh, and their “bad-boy” boyfriends.

Brian Kettler sees stars, too.

I especially loved the idea that teen-age fans of a particular TV show would need to go into rehab when the star of the show disappears before the last episode. Delicious on lots of levels. But I don’t want to go into the plot too much because those plot twists are central to the experience.

And remember the ground rules from yesterday: All of the JAW shows are in the development process. They will change. Although the actors who are reading them have had a few rehearsals to work out a tiny bit of stage business, these readings just give the playwrights (and the audiences) a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. For example, Wohlmut said that his particular cast this time around deepened his idea of what was possible for his characters.

All of that is just to say that I’m avoiding final judgments of the work. At this point, though, I can say that I would enjoy seeing full productions of any of the four plays in “Made in Oregon,” which is a sign that festival director Rose Riordan and her reading committee did a good job.

I’d offer one more round of applause — to the actors.  Portland’s acting community populated these readings, and without exception, as individuals and ensembles, they rose to the challenge of those short rehearsals and brand new material.  They are just as central to the fun of the festival for the audience (among whom I count myself) as the new plays themselves.

The festival kicks back into gear on Thursday for four more days featuring plays by national playwrights. Those will be in the Armory’s smaller theater, so reservations are necessary.

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