JAW new works fest: a play-by-play

Snapshots from the 10 works in progress at this summer's festival

In line at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, I bumped into a writing colleague. “Are you reviewing this?” I asked him. “Oh, no!” he replied. Rose [Riordan, the festival director] wouldn’t like that!”

Sure enough, as the fest progressed and each show closed with a talkback, Riordan repeatedly stated that it was too early in the playwrights’ process to hear opinions. She asked the inquisitive JAW audience to “put your question in a form that doesn’t reveal your opinion,” and seemed to bristle whenever someone disobeyed, even to give a compliment.

So let’s not call this a review; let’s call it a “re-cap”—of plays still in progress, still in flux. And let’s not call the ideas expressed here “opinions,” but rather “a sense.” ArtsWatch spent all weekend at JAW, catching the four featured plays and the six shorts by Promising Playwrights, and came away with “a sense” of each show. How could we do otherwise?

 

The whole crew of JAW gets some shade at The Armory.

The whole crew of JAW gets some shade at The Armory.

 

PROMISING PLAYWRIGHTS

Each year, PCS selects a few high-school-aged playwrights from its Visions & Voices mentorship program in area public schools and asks them to write a short, 5-8 minute script especially for JAW. The resultant short works are presented by professional actors in the Promising Playwrights series. In prior years, these protege shorts were disbursed as openers for the fest’s full-length plays, but this year they were consolidated and presented in a packed Ellyn Bye Studio on JAW’s opening evening.

Potato Potato, by Daniel Crumrine evokes “Po-TAY-to Po-TAH-to,” a pet phrase that means, “We’re saying the same thing a different way; we understand each other”…most often used when that’s not actually true. A man and woman (Gerrin Mitchell and Lauren Modica) meet at their office water cooler to shoot the breeze. They bring up tragic and catastrophic current world events, but quickly dismiss each one with a pun—for instance, a bombing “sounds like a blast”—then giggle hysterically. Eventually, a crash story (pardon the pun) strikes the man as serious; he lost a brother in a car crash. The woman begins to make jokes about the man’s loss as he fumes. “It happened to me,” he insists. Bemused, the woman can only offer, “It didn’t happen to me.” By hyperextending a lack of empathy to an unrealistic degree, Crumrine makes the case for how disgusting it always is, even when we apply it to people farther from home.

Flickering, by Caleb Sohigian plunges into the dark corners of family drama as a neglectful husband answers to the specter of his dead wife for having started a fire and failing to save her (and their baby). Whenever he lights the flame of a candle, her ghost appears and begins scolding him with the metaphor of a flame “killing the one thing that loves it most,” melting the candle whose wax embraces it. Whenever he extinguishes it, she vanishes again. “You’re arrogant, broken, and sad!” she spits. “[You were] a siphon of happiness, money, and time!” he retorts. What could easily be the lowest point in an inverted Freytag’s Pyramid or the beginning of a uniformly eerie Russian drama leaves an audience curious and a playwright tasked: how to bring the characters this low, and how to pull them out?

The Friendliest Dyke on the Block, by Luna Koenig‘s titular character Rebecca (Lauren Modica) hovers somewhere between complex and inexplicable. One minute she’s serving major attitude to her former male lover Alex (Gerrin Mitchell); the next, she’s awkwardly pawing his face, urging him to “let it happen.” After bandying a few innuendos about hotdogs and tacos to represent male versus female companionship, she gleefully announces, “I f-cked your sister!” Each of Rebecca’s quick-change moods provides a different wrinkle of humor; draping them more elegantly over one scene or spreading them out across a longer continuum would be a natural next step. As its bittersweet title suggests, this short has a great sense of humor, and a lot of sociopolitical material to unpack.

…in the neighborhood, by Lindsay Spear takes a mature risk: writing a psycho, while treading perilously close to the rich literary turf of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Not-quite-right pet shop attendant Jared (Ben Newman) recounts the death of his beloved childhood pet bunny Mister Rogers to a series of petrified female customers (all read by Amy Newman). As he speaks, Jared physically detains each woman against her will, ever more closely conflating each with the rabbit that—it turns out—he force-fed to death. We sympathize with the first three women. The fourth, we fear for. “That one was weird,” murmured some teens in the seats behind me. But Spear, (who, along with Crumrine, won a $10,000 scholarship) demonstrated that she had the power to drag her audience well outside their comfort zone.

Buy-polar, by Nickey Olson absurdly explores a contemporary premise: What if a drugstore was a place where one could simply “buy” moods at whim? Impatient customer Vince (Mitchell) asks the checker James (Newman) what he has in stock. When James sees Vince’s full shopping bag and asks if he’s having a party, Vince tells him “no”—he prefers to feel his emotions alone. Vince becomes increasingly astounded as James samples the store’s wares in front of him and demonstrates their effects by cycling through emotions with accelerating speed. Olson’s seeming indictment of the futility and danger of mood medications draws wry humor from perceptive comments on individual emotions (jealousy is the most addictive, artists’ drug of choice is curiosity, “The dangerous stuff is so good!”) and from actors’ multifaceted, dead-serious delivery of inherently ridiculous moods.

Kissable, by Caroline Fenty both references and emulates a classic rom-com, with characters Moe (Modica) and Holly (Newman) gossiping about kissing skills while chomping (imaginary) popcorn and watching Ten Things I Hate About You. The premise is simple enough to duck into the background, ceding the center of attention to Fenty’s playfulness with comic timing and callbacks. Easily the most “mainstream” of the works, this ode to universal teen insecurity rings with a write-what-you-know authenticity.

THE BIG WEEKEND

The Keys of the Kingdom, by Penny Penniston,

This story unfolds from an arguably impossible premise: The pastor of an evangelical mega-church has heard the voice of God, and it instructed him to commission art–yes, art—from a lesbian—yes, lesbian. It would seem to be against everything the Christian Right routinely stands for. Forging forward regardless, Penniston fleshes out the following characters: Ed, the aforementioned pastor (Frederic Lehne); Arthur, his uptight (and later contrite) assistant; Joann, Arthur’s reluctantly-pregnant, older wife; Irene, the New York-based lesbian painter, and Paige, Irene’s assistant/wife. Despite the “mega”-ness of their church climate, the group only seems to answer to each other for their increasingly out-of-character choices.

One of Penniston’s main conceits is giving each character an opportunity to “play god.” Irene listens in on conversations from atop a tall scaffold, yelling her opinions from the heavens; Ed leads his flock, poses as a father figure and has apparently resurrected Arthur from a life of alcoholism; Arthur initially judges his wife according to his own moral laws, but eventually reassures her that he’ll love her no matter what; and Joann gets the chance (again, arguably) to “play god” over the outcome of her pregnancy. In JAW’s excellently-directed, expertly-acted reading, each of these characters became funny or sympathetic in turn—so much so that the show closed to enthusiastic cheers. Still, many plot points remain unsolved except through the grace of deus ex machina, a concept Penniston mentioned in her talkback. Though a two-week internship at CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) may have granted her keys to the Christian Right’s PR-friendly lobby, the playwright may yet have to sneak into the inner sanctum.

db, by Tommy Smith

Smith, with the help of story writer/director Teddy Bergman, expounds on a Northwest legend as storied as Sasquatch:  plane hijacker D. B. Cooper, who commandeered a Portland-to-Seattle 747, allowed it to land once to collect parachutes and a $200,000 ransom, then re-embarked and parachuted into the Northwest wilderness…never to be seen again(?). Of course, since the crime in 1971, numerous people have stepped forward claiming to have found the “real” D. B. Cooper. With speculative yet realistic dialogue, Smith reconstructs several possible lead-ups to, and fall-outs from, Cooper’s big heist, starring different actors as divergent versions of the hijacker. The narrative flashes back and forward with disorienting speed, though maybe that’s the point: difficulty keeping this particular story straight, is part of the story itself.

In their talkback, Tommy Smith and Bergman credited just 7% of the script’s dialogue but all of its proposed scenarios to testimony collected by investigators about the real-life incident. (So the line where the flight attendant warns D.B. that security might make him remove his sunglasses: fake. The fact that he was wearing them: real.) Some of the more intriguing flourishes? A depiction of Cooper as a male-to-female transsexual who took the money for his operation, a suggestion that the female flight attendant’s trauma after Cooper caused her to have Hulk-like “episodes” on future first dates, and a scene where Cooper’s alleged niece, who claims to have unearthed repressed memories, submits herself (and by proxy, the audience) to a therapist’s hypnotic “dreamachine”— a device that makes pulsing light patterns.

Speculation is best done from a safe distance, and Smith maintains that throughout. With their quick retorts and their fleeting recollections, these characters fan out across the show as evenly as snapshots pinned to a detective’s bulletin board. There’s certainly a pattern of behavior here, but we may never know the motive.

The Royal Society of Antarctica, by Mat Smart

Doesn’t three hours sound like too long to watch a regimented group of seasonal workers clean toilets and do dishes in the Antarctic wasteland? That’s what I thought. But completely defying this dismal-seeming setup, Royal Society is pretty goshdarned great.

Young, beautiful Dee (Hollye Hudson) has decided to brave Antarctica as a sort of pilgrimage to honor her mother Shannon, who gave birth to her there around 20 years ago, and then died shortly after, as her father brought her back to the US. She plans to retrace her mom’s steps by working the same job she had and by connecting with long-timers Tom and Pam (Danny Wolohan and Val Landrum),  who worked with her mom and dad back in the day. But from the second the freezing air fills Dee’s lungs, Antarctica’s bracing climate and its inhabitants’ compensatory idiosyncrasies horn in on Dee’s sacred ritual. Once her new coworkers initiate her into 10-hour workdays under a never-setting sun, she becomes one of the gang, armed with a standard-issue “big red” overcoat and “green brain” notebook, mopping bathroom floors to the brink of exhaustion and pining for the next time the cafeteria will serve biscuits and honey butter.

Mercifully, “Princess Dee” shifts in and out of the center of attention. We also watch a torrid love affair between Tamara and Tim (Jennifer Rowe and Chris Murray), meet and then abruptly part with visiting soldier Miller (Andy Lee-Hillstrom), and snicker at the wooing efforts of local perv Ace (Gavin Hoffman) and algae-obsessed field biologist Jake (Isaac Lamb) toward the colony’s only “princess.” Nuanced, unpredictable, realistic dynamics emerge between these over-intimate, under-stimulated characters; meanwhile the audience, having taken mental notes during Dee’s survival lessons, gains a vicarious sense of insider Antarctic explorer cred (which smart actually gained working as an Antarctic janitor). Three hours feel like nothin’ when the sun’s up for months.

A Life, by Adam Bock

Because I’d interviewed Adam Bock for The Portland Mercury last week, I already had some ideas about what his new play would entail: a long opening monologue, the main character’s mid-story confrontation with mortality, prominent—almost scene-stealing—use of lighting and sound. All of these imaginings came true, but one did not: that the confrontation would substantially change the character.

Nate (Danny Wolohan), is a likable, newly-single gay thirtysomething who’s recently started seeking answers to his ongoing “intimacy issues” from group therapy and astrology charts. But during the course of his beginning monologue, he seems to reveal an easier explanation: nitpickiness, or what he calls “liking detail.” With near-Seinfeldian efficiency, he can rattle off all of his former boyfriends’ faults, including innocuous traits like “too tall” or “long teeth.” Obviously chagrined about the prospect of getting “long in the tooth” himself (he snaps a photo of his bald spot with his phone, looks at it, sighs…), Nate calms himself by people-watching with his best friend Curtis (Kelsey Tyler). “Look at him!” they nudge each other and exclaim.

Soon after, a death steals the show.

Then for a surprisingly, experimentally long time, there are lights and sounds, but no movements or lines, leaving the audience uncomfortably riveted to one scene, awaiting further cues.

After a while, the play reanimates, and eventually Nate resumes his evaluations of the world around him. Has his brush with mortality matured him? Maybe a smidge. But mostly, he seems unaltered. His regrets are less like revelations than musings, and he still seems to retain his nitpi—er, detail-orientation. Maybe this is Bock’s conscious attempt to defy the “main character is forever changed” cliché. But if so, he risks leaving audiences wondering: what’s it all for?

 

 

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