The JAW festival/2013: Intimate, sexy and intense

Two days, four plays and the sense that theater is changing...

Day Two of Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival: Several of the actors from the previous day lounged outside the theater chatting. Playwright Dominic Finocchiaro, the author of Day One’s delightful “complex,” arrived in Brooklyn-nerdy bright turquoise sneakers and that modern haircut that forms a ridge/wedge along the top of the head. And Polaris Dance Theatre performed dances to spoken texts in a totally packed lobby. We cheered, because they really were quite good and they were within whispering distance, if we’d decided to murmur some quiet encouragement to them.

Nearly everyone was dressed informally for our delicious July weather, and we were taking advantage of one of the city’s best arts bargains, which this year involved four brand-spanking new plays, four short curtain raisers by four high-school playwrights, and four lobby shows that took us from hip-hop to gamelan, all for free. So, yes, the audience was happy, and once we settled into the chill of the large Gerding Theater, we were appreciative of our good fortune. Then the work spooled out onstage.

Drew Harper, Renata Friedman, Amir Arison read through Threesome by Yussef El Guindi. Photo by Sarah Mitchell

Drew Harper, Renata Friedman, Amir Arison read through Threesome by Yussef El Guindi. Photo by Sarah Mitchell

I’m about to make some comment about that work, but please, don’t think that I’m in any way “reviewing” it. The four plays on view are in flux, going through the labyrinth that new American plays by playwrights of good pedigree must negotiate to ever see the light of our major American stages. The plays could change; heck, they could disappear or get swallowed into a new version that bears only faint resemblance to what we saw this weekend. And the directors and actors for these readings (they had scripts in hand) were serving those playwrights for now, not the audience.

So, yes, an informal audience and four plays in progress, but that doesn’t mean that things didn’t get intense or that the stakes were low. Anytime an actor enters the stage and tries to make the audience feel that its attention will be rewarded, stakes are high, aren’t they? And these scripts, which each received a couple of weeks of close work in Portland, represent months and years of investment by the playwrights involved. The audience’s appreciation was well-placed.

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Before I go on, I have to remind myself that this little concentration of new plays is a very small sample of the universe of new plays fighting to make it to stage out there. It is not necessarily representative. In fact, this set didn’t include any plays by women playwrights, which I consider unfortunate, though a couple of them had excellent women’s roles. But I’m still going to generalize!

Let’s see. Generalization Number One: The contemporary mania for using material we once would have considered personal and private extends to theater. Sexual topics and practices of all sorts popped up in these plays. So did intestinal functions. See? I belong to a generation that employs euphemisms for diarrhea, at least in print, and certainly wouldn’t make a plot point out of it, except in comedies of the broadest sort. OK, now that I’ve typed that I’m remembering a bunch of counter examples (the astronauts trying to hold it in “The Right Stuff”!), especially on the edges of alt.literature back in the day and broad comedies. Anyway, “Threesome” by Yussef El Guindi describes a very unlucky coincidence of sex, curry and lower bowel function.

A lot of the sexual material involved gay characters, but this usually wasn’t a BIG DEAL in the plays. I wouldn’t call them “gay plays,” like the pioneering work of 1980s and ‘90s (Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Sherman, Tony Kushnerm, etc.). In American theater, gayness has been mainstreamed, just as it increasingly is in American life, at least on the coasts. In fact, some of the gay relationships couldn’t be more problematic. I’m thinking of David Lavine’s “The Ocean All Around Us,” which describes the relationship between two orphaned brothers, one significantly older than the other.

The playwrights often played around with gender roles. Is our sex our destiny? To what extent does it define us and our reactions to our circumstances? “Threesome” sketches the tension between an Egyptian couple (well, they mention Cairo a lot anyway), and though the man makes the case that modern capitalism chews up women and men indiscriminately, it’s pretty clear that the sharper teeth are reserved for women. And in David Jacobi’s “Mai Dang Lao,” which is set among a crew of fast food workers, the lives of the women are more distorted than the men’s, though overall maybe it supports the argument of the Arab man in “Threesome.”

Three of the four plays were funny, or at least started out that way. Both “Threesome” and “Mai Dang Lao” were hilarious for their first acts, before u-turning into drama of a most difficult sort, the place where politics becomes personal. The audience made this turn easily, I think, and eventually I went along, though for me maybe “Threesome” was a bit didactic and the collapse and disintegration of the fast-food society in “Mai Dang Lao” seemed sudden.

I haven’t talked as much about Finocchiaro’s “complex,” which started out funny and kept going, through the bloody apocalypse in a New York high-rise, which may or may not have been committed by a seemingly mild new karaoke devotee. The playwright is a Reed grad, and his play is full of witty lines and situations and verbal hijinks, David Ives-like, perhaps? To me, it seemed closest to a date with a theater company, though the rivers of blood are going to be a challenge for the design team!

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All of the playwrights, though, had great credentials, and their command of their material impressed me. Lavine’s play set sail (going backwards, like Pinter’s “Betrayal”) into the darkest of situations. which the playwright concealed for a time within an arson mystery. El Guindi’s begins like a sex farce, with a struggling couple’s attempt to reconcile via the threesome of the title, but once we figure out why they are struggling, the play becomes wrenching. And Jacobi’s “Mai Dang Lao” imagines what happens when a McDonald’s manager is pranked into subjecting an employee to the worst sort of harassment (which actually happened in Kentucky in 2005), though it starts out with a set of funny caricature employees and managers. The language of bureaucracy and cheap psychology is perfect.

Although I enjoyed the plays, I loved the gameness of the actors, their skill, the chemistry they established onstage, even through the most demanding, intimate scenes. I’m thinking of the brothers in “The Ocean All Around Us,” played by Amir Arison and John Magaro; the victim in “Mai Dang Lao,” played by Danielle Purdy; and the couple in “Threesome,” played by Arison and Renata Friedman (though we should also point out Drew Harper’s mostly comic third wheel in the same play). The comedy was especially deft at times: Andy Lee-Hillstrom cracked up the cast in “complex,” Harper did the same to Arison in “Threesome,” and the ensemble comedy of “Mai Dang Lao” gave everyone a shot. We had our laughs at this year’s JAW.

My fear at JAW is that too many theater fans will show up, and I won’t get in. The crowds weren’t THAT big this year, though they were very healthy. I think if I wanted to introduce someone to the joys of theater, I might start by taking them to the festival. The investment is low (just your time!), things are nice and casual, the audience is responsive and ready, and an education into the process of theater-making is at hand. That’s pretty perfect.

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