It was just JAW time of year again (that's Portland Center Stage's new-plays festival, for those of you who don' t know), and for the first time since 2004, I was there merely as a spectator and not a festival intern. Even in 2004, I was pretty obsessed--using my birthday money to get tickets to all 4 JAW plays (this was before the festival was free). This year, however, even though a whopping 37 playwrights participated in JAW, the only events I went to were two of the mainstage play readings.
These are works in progress and the point of the festival is to help the playwrights, not to criticize them; so I've tried to keep my comments positive and not overly specific. Fortunately, I liked both plays I saw!
Saturday night I saw Paradise Street by Constance Congdon. This play had an all-female cast: six women of diverse ages and races. Four of them played multiple roles, and the other two played the main characters: Jane, a famous academic feminist, and T.J., a tough homeless woman who assaults Jane, steals her car, and later steals her identity. The post-show talkback got very serious, with Congdon and the audience discussing her play's main theme: that the current trends in the feminist movement do nothing to improve the lives of working-class and poor women. But the play itself is exceptionally funny, and dramatizes its ideas rather than preaching them. T.J. first seems like a one-dimensional criminal but becomes intriguingly complex; you even start rooting for her ambition and her no-bullshit attitude.
The all-female cast, class issues, and anger of Paradise Street make me want to compare it to Top Girls, but it's less self-important, more satirical, more accessible. Anyone who has gone to a liberal arts college in the last 30 years should get a kick out of the way Congdon kids academic theory and jargon, especially the overuse of the word "hegemony." (Currently she teaches at Amherst.) I often say that I want to write about women's lives in such a way that guys will go see my plays and not dismiss them as "chick plays," and I think Congdon succeeds at doing just that.
Although, I do have to say: I have seen/worked on three new American plays in the last year that include a theme of Wal-Mart Is Evil. OK, I agree with that, but it's starting to feel like preaching to the choir. Wal-Mart already has a stranglehold on America's retail economy--now it has to have a stranglehold on American playwrights' imaginations as well?!
Sunday night, I took a friend to see Enchantment, by Carson Kreitzer. This play takes as its starting point the life of Bruno Bettelheim: Holocaust survivor, author of a famous work on the hidden psychological value of fairy tales (The Uses of Enchantment), and creator of the pernicious theory that autism is caused by mothers who are too cold and uninvolved. Bettelheim appears as a character in the play; so does Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who works as a designer of more humane slaughterhouses for cattle. Patterns start to emerge: the slaughter of cattle, the slaughter of Jews, the violence found in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales...
Enchantment is mainly told as a series of monologues and tableaux, so it doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense, but it certainly offers a lot to think about. Humans are the only animals who tell stories to one another. Autistic children tend to be literalists and don't like stories. We think of the Nazis as animalistic, bestial, but they told stories that painted the Jews as bestial. The greatest fairy tales often deal with a human turning into a beast or vice versa. And so the connections ripple out...