JAW festival: Speedoo and Anna Karenina

Greta Garbo is NOT at the JAW festival, but Anna Karenina is.

The second weekend of Portland’s JAW new play festival sprang to life on Thursday, moving downstairs to the intimate quarters of Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio for the “national” playwrights in the festival. That meant the crowd was smaller  but no less enthusiastic than the audiences for last week’s Made in Oregon weekend. And the two plays they saw on Thursday both seemed sharp and ready for full productions – Quincy Long’s “The Huntsmen” and Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re just catching up with JAW, the festival gives playwrights a chance to work with actors and directors for a couple of weeks on a new play. This process culminates in staged readings, which Portland Center Stage offers to audiences free of charge.

As outside observer Kathleen Dimmick, the New York-based director of “The Huntsmen,” pointed out, “There’s a huge community interest in this thing, and beyond playwright development it clearly builds a stronger relationship with the community.” And she’s right – the typical JAW crowd is jammed with the theater “people” and intense theater fans. Portland theater doesn’t get much more hardcore than this, except maybe for the Fertile Ground festival, though that’s a different sort of thing.

Because these are staged readings, a full-blown review or analysis of the work on display isn’t fair, right?  The plays will change, the actors haven’t rehearsed them much (most read from scripts in hand), directors haven’t spun them, they don’t have the benefit of sets, lights, costumes or props and the movement onstage is minimal (though often funny).

That’s not going to stop us now from providing a little description of what we saw yesterday (or what we’ll see tonight). 

Long  said that “The Huntsmen” began with a discussion between a busy father and his 14-year-old son, who has something on his mind but can’t quite find words for it. The conversation moves along comically, as the dad, a lawyer working on a murder case, starts to catch the the drift of his son’s halting, frequently deflected story, compounded by his blank affect and then his confession that he’d considered killing the father, though maybe just the once. Oops. Those with sensitive antenae might have gathered immediately that something was afoot.

The son, Devon, then manages to string together some words that indicate he’s gone beyond just thinking about murder, he and his club, The Huntsmen. And that maybe he’s developed a taste for it. But the real surprise, for me anyway, occurred after his talk with dad ended, um, abruptly, and Devon launched into a great doo-wop song made famous by the Cadillacs, “Speedoo”: “They often call me Speedoo but my real name is Mister Earl.”

And it’s… great. Devon, played by Cory Michael Smith, can really sing, and some fine doo-wop harmony is provided by Robert Mammana, Danny Wolohan and Rob Riley. As Devon’s picaresque tale unfolds, more doo-wop numbers (music by Michael Chinworth and lyrics by Long) pop up, often right after some, um, stressful event in Speedo, er, Mister Earl, er, Devon’s life.

Long has been planting songs in his plays since taking a class in songwriting and applying what he’d learned to a children’s show for California’s South Coast Repertory Theatre. “I like it because it lifts the whole level,” he says, and though though these plays really aren’t musicals, they have enough songs to make the audience anticipate the next one. And it’s not a new idea – Shakespeare included songs in a good number of his plays, after all.

So, “The Huntsmen” is macabre, funny and has musical breaks, usually around the time Devon pulls out his machete. In the audience talk-back after the show, Long said that after he wrote the play he started noticing the number of bizarre incidents that involve teen killers, and sure enough, when I got home, I noticed a story about a Florida teen-ager who’d murdered his parents and then had a party at the house, during which he showed the bodies to the revelers. In a strange way, maybe, “The Huntsmen” informs this profoundly serious question, though that isn’t its intention, because it suggests the twisted but logical course the warped or half-formed or stressed human mind can take. It just does it to doo-wop.

***

“The Huntsmen” was a speedy little dark comedy. “Anna Karenina” isn’t comic, but in McKeon’s compression of it, it’s relatively brief, clocking in just under three hours with intermission. That’s pretty good for a book of more than ten thousand pages, which is how long it seemed the last time I read it, way back in my college days.

That’s just to say that I’m no Tolstoy expert, and maybe if you are a devotee, this version would seem like a bad haircut to you, but I thought it did a fine job of establishing the primary characters and relating the main plot stem of the novel. Anna is married to the wealthy Karenin and has a beloved little son, but when she meets Count Vronsky, all bets are off. Suddenly, the practical, wise, self-contained wife becomes a passionate, doomed romantic. Betrayal is in the Russian air, of course. Anna’s brother and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because of the brother’s infidelity, and their friend Kitty is in love with Vronsky, until he’s smitten by Anna. And Levin has always carried the torch for Kitty, but his political beliefs sent him to work on his estate in the country.

And, come on, even in this truncated version, the plot would take at least a couple more paragraphs to relate. We won’t go there.

The passion is there, though, supplied by Anna, as read by Katy Selverstone. Of course, McKeon has had a lot of practice finding the core of long novels, having created stage versions of “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Great Expectations” and Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons,” among other shows, including David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars,” which Portland Center Stage produced in 2010. “Anna Karenina” is on the Portland Center Stage schedule for next spring, so we’ll get an immediate chance to see how it changes in the intervening months.

NOTES

Advance reservations are necessary for this part of the JAW festival, because of the limited seating. Reservations can be made by calling 503-445-3700, or in person at the box office of the Gerding Theater at the Armory at 128 NW 11th Ave.

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