Monday, July 25, 2011

JAW's second weekend PLUS Todd Haynes on 'Mildred Pierce'

Todd Haynes on Kate Winslet? Determined!
By Barry Johnson

As promised, here's my OPB-based post on the weekend -- which this weekend meant JAW and Todd Haynes.

Before a staged reading during the second half of the JAW festival of new plays this weekend, Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman suggested that theater lovers are really story junkies. We crave its ability to relate the tales of human experience so vividly.

I’m not sure that’s true, at least not for me. I found myself anticipating this weekend’s plays not so much for stories as the insights into our human predicament as we wander through the front end of the 21st century. And, maybe more than anything, I liked the buzz so many actors, directors, playwrights and committed theater fans create.

I didn’t get a clear signal from the four playwrights this weekend, no underlying themes or warnings about catastrophes to come. On the other hand I did get two excellent heroines, one autobiographical collision of a playwright and a war zone journalist and one doo-wop serial killer play. In brief:

  • “Anna Karenina” adapted by Kevin McKeon: Heroine number one was the tragic Anna. When I saw the running time of the play was under three hours, I thought this must be a comic version, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s version of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” But no, McKeon, an accomplished novel adaptor, has preserved the essential passion and plot of the play and saved us many days of Tolstoy reading. Perfect!
  • “Tales From Red Vienna” by David Grimm: Heroine number two is Helena, a widow whose husband has died heroically in World War I. Material resources vanishing, she is reduced to prostitution to survive. This sounds tragic (and it is), but the play is also hilarious, thanks mostly to a wisecracking servant and Grimm’s gift for one-liners and aphorisms, and Helena refuses to become a tragic heroine.
  • “The Body of an American” by Dan O’Brien: O’Brien exchanged emails with and finally met Pulitzer-winning photographer Paul Watson, and that forms the basis for this play. Watson is most famous for an image of the body of an American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, but that photograph has haunted him since 1993. O’Brien idolizes Watson and his own psychological issues entwine with Watson’s. The pace at which this happens? Breakneck.
  • “The Huntsmen” by Quincy Long: Long drops some fabulous doo-wop numbers into the middle of his dark comedy, and when Cory Michael Smith as the seriously unhinged teenager Devon breaks into “Some people call me Speedoo, but my real name is Mister Earl,” the audience practically cried out “Wow!” in unison. Think of it as a coming-of-age tale with machetes involved.

All these playwrights have considerable credentials, and these plays are all likely to find their way to the stage of a major regional theater. Portland Center Stage will produce “Anna Karenina” next spring, for example. And all of them seem very close to production-worthy -- sharp, smart, with most of their internal issues resolved.

In addition to Smith as Devon, I should point out Katy Selverstone as Anna, Melinda Paige Hamilton as Helena and Tommy Schrider and Ward Duffy as Dan and Paul for the way they dealt with the demands of their roles. Staged readings are not walks in the park -- in fact, I’d argue that they put more strain on an actor because of the short rehearsal period and the absence of sets, costumes and props. (For more on the second weekend of JAW, you can link to my posts at Oregon Arts Watch.)

Portland film director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon arrived at the Northwest Film Center on Sunday, ready to take questions from fans of Haynes’ HBO series, “Mildred Pierce,” which Vachon produced. And for around 90 minutes they were peppered with them, questions technical (Q: How could you afford so many reflected shots through glass?; A: By working in miniature we saved money on set construction), celebrity oriented (Q: Kate Winslet! A: I liked the physicality, determination and focus she brought to Mildred) and film geeky (Haynes discussed Fassbinder and the great genre films of the 1970s).

I’m already on record with my admiration for Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce.” It’s not a film noir, like Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, and the textures that result, both in the richness of its depiction of 1930s L.A., and the psychology of the characters seem amazing in contrast. So, it was enlightening to hear him talk about it in person with Vachon.


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