Monday, July 26, 2010

Theater in Portland: How hot JAW was, yet how cool

By Barry Johnson

I spent a couple of hot afternoons this weekend at Portland Center Stage's JAW festival -- restoring myself in the cool and the dark among brand-spanking new plays.

I'm glad I did, too. The crowds were good-sized and enthusiastic, packed with Portland theater people affiliated with the city's various companies, and everyone seemed to eager to get in on the ground floor of the plays at hand. Even better, it gave me a good, quick survey of the acting talent available here, and I've got to say, I was impressed.  These were play readings, not full productions, but the actors had rehearsed, and they came out guns blazing.

So on those scores, JAW was a success, but what about the two plays I saw? Well, there are limits to what I can say. These plays are both still in the development stage. They could get better/they could get worse. No props, no costumes, no sets, little movement, no blocking. The actors read from their scripts, and though they had rehearsed some, they hadn't spent a lot of time with their characters. Still, I saw enough to make a few observations about William S. Gregory's "Necessity" and Rob Handel's "A Maze," both of which captured my imagination for a few hours -- and more.

Gregory's "Necessity" is set in 1919 in small-town, African-American Alabama. That's enough to give us pause right there. A white playwright creating African-American characters? Gregory addressed this himself in a little interview with Mead Hunter:
"I thought on these very things for quite a while. Eventually I realized I had no choice. This play was in my head begging to come out and for my own sanity I needed to put secondary considerations aside and write it. There are times when the muse speaks and the artist must create or risk losing his connection to art."
As Hunter suggested in the interview, Gregory is known for the delightful wordplay and rhetorical shape of his plays. And he said that "Necessity" draws on the storytelling and sermonizing experience of African American in the rural South, but of course the rich, perfect language of "Necessity" (and of necessity!) is in service to his plot and characters, not to mention his aesthetics, more than it attempts to recreate the language of real people.

I like the risk of it, and the words that are uttered, the way they deal with philosophical issues, existential moments, ethical concepts, in concrete ways. "Are we pigs looking for a fresh wallow and a few new grunts?" "Life is a stream and lost branches are carried along at flood time." "No one would steal a shoe with the foot still in it." (Warning: these quotes may not be absolutely verbatim.)

And have I mentioned that the play has elements and structures of Greek drama and myths? We have a hero returning from the war, whose Penelope hasn't been faithful to her Ulysses, for example. We have competing duties -- to the state and to the family. We have a Greek chorus of three old wise men, and we have a Cassandra, who sees her own death.

The African American aspect of the play would be almost negligible, except for one of its key concerns -- the treatment of African American soldiers in France during the war versus in America on their return.  The casual, almost inferred, racism of the American South (and it could just as well been Oregon) gives this personal story of revenge a political point, too.

Just to reiterate the comment above: I enjoyed the acting in "Necessity," especially the chorus (Wendell Wright, Gary Yates and Kevin Jones) but really everyone. For years in Portland I heard that there weren't enough African American actors for a theater company to take on play X or play Y or Play Z. At this point (and after last spring's "Radio Golf" at Portland Playhouse), I'd say we could stage all three of those plays at the same time.

Handel's "A Maze" is about a girl who's been abducted and kept in a basement for eight years, so naturally it's a comedy.  The girl, Jessica, has been kidnapped by a graphic novelist, Beeson, to help him figure out a story he's concocted about a little girl's attempt to escape from a giant maze constructed by her father to keep her safe. OK, the plot's long and complicated. Beeson isn't a molester, just a kidnapper. And his story intersects with the central figures in a popular band, the Pathetic Fallacy, and of course with Jessica's mother, who has conducted an obsessive search for her daughter since the kidnapping, Jessica's brother and a TV personality. Those stories entwine with the story that Beeson is drawing, too. Don't worry, we're not going to get into it all here.

It's funny, though. And it had me thinking about famous mazes and labyrinths of myth, legend and history (the Labyrinth of Knossos that harbored the Minotaur, for example), Plato's Cave (most of what Jessica knows comes from daytime TV), the nature of celebrity, the rules of the artist and other things. It also has some portentous sayings -- "When the prey leads you to unfamiliar ground, you want the dogs on your side" -- that are hilarious in context.

Jenny Seastone Stern as Jessica was delightful and so was her captor, played by Tim True, but again the cast as a whole was a joy to watch from Rachael Ferrera as the narrator (she also was in "Necessity") to Ebbe Roe Smith as a King in the story and as a record producer.  Speaking of Smith, I saw his play "Night Terrors" the previous weekend, and I'm still laughing about it.