Wednesday, July 25, 2007

We Played Rough

Another year, another JAW: A Playwrights Festival at Portland Center Stage. After missing half of it last year, I was so glad to be a part of the whole festival again! The four main staged readings were:
  • Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi--Quirky, tragi-comic version of Marie's life. Mixture of elevated and Valley Girl dialogue. A talking sheep. Windmills. Focuses on Marie's psychology, makes you wish history was wrong.
  • Bruise Easy by Dan LeFranc--Brutal, wrenching. Long, poetic, impossible stage directions. SoCal suburban wasteland. A pregnant woman. Her slacker brother. A Greek chorus of Nasty Neighborhood Kids.
  • A Story about a Girl by Jacquelyn Reingold--Bittersweet. Story-theater form. Narration and retelling. A girl who has trouble learning how to talk, and her experiences with life and love.
  • Box Americana: A Dream of Wal-Mart by Jason Grote--Sam Walton as diabolus ex machina. Six people, male and female, black and white, caught in our late-capitalist system. Funny but eye-opening.
Mostly I worked on Marie Antoinette, helping the cast and crew with matters of French pronunciation and language. It was good to use the language again and know that it has some practical purpose! The wonderful NY stage actress Marin Ireland played Marie. It's a very difficult role (at times ditzy, at times imperious, at times lonely, desperate, half-crazed) and I loved watching her during every scene; she also has a pretty good French accent! I also had to help actor Darius Pierce, who played Louis XVI, learn how to sing a lullaby in French. Darius is great--he's like a cross between Paul Giamatti and Wallace Shawn, so he's not going to play a lot of kings during his career, but he was perfect as the ineffectual, immature King Louis. And he ended up singing beautifully--not only was his pronunciation good, his acting was spot-on and moving.

I'm not really going to comment on what I thought of the plays--whether I liked them or didn't, whether they work or not--because they are still being workshopped and, after all, I'm involved with the Festival. But there were some interesting parallels and connections that I noted, which are probably fine to share.

All of the plays this year had a theme of "the responsibility that parents owe to their children." Bruise Easy is ALL about that--the main characters are children of divorce, the mom is missing, the daughter is pregnant, the Nasty Neighborhood Kids seem nasty only because they're crying out for their parents' love. In A Story about a Girl, Jessica's parents don't know how to deal with having a daughter who can't talk, and she ultimately runs away. Danae, in Box Americana, gets the job at Wal-Mart to provide for her daughter Janelle, but gets fired when she asks for time off to care for a sick Janelle. Marie Antoinette depicts Marie and her son the Dauphin, and also suggests that part of Marie's problem is that her mother neglected her and she never had a childhood--shipped off to marry Louis at the age of 14.

Three of the plays (not so much A Story about a Girl) were, self-consciously, new twists on old forms. Marie Antoinette uses contemporary language and a talking sheep, but it's not otherwise anachronistic and is true to history--a twist on the bio-play. You think "For all I know, it could have happened that way." Strip away the pop-culture references and the shocking, contemporary-seeming brutality from Bruise Easy, and you're left with something like a Greek tragedy--Dan LeFranc actually based it on Electra. (The brother and sister are Alec and Tess, not Electra and Orestes.) It is actually a very moral, ethical play, dealing with the question of how to live a good life for oneself and one's children. As a play about injustice in the workplace, Box Americana makes you think of a 1930s labor drama (Clifford Odets), until you realize that Jason Grote is avoiding simple propaganda. It reminded David Adjmi of "those '80s plays like Top Girls where you realize that everyone is caught in the system, that the system is to blame."

These same 3 plays also make use of symbolic, message-bearing characters--the revolutionary sheep in Marie Antoinette, the wise-beyond-their-years skate-punks in Bruise Easy, the spirit of Sam Walton in Box Americana. Perhaps this all comes down to Tony Kushner's influence? I think he is a really big role model for this generation of playwrights. Jason Grote's subtitle is even Kushnerian... Box Americana: A Dream of Wal-Mart versus Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Hopefully, you will see reviews of these four plays in The New York Times sometime, or better yet, at a theatre near you!

1 comment:

Vinegar Tom said...

Your French was indispensable, & your analysis here so trenchant.

Thanks for all, it was swell.

Look forward to seeing your plays on stage someday.

David Adjmi