JAW Report

Yesterday was the first time in several years I have had the opportunity to participate in the JAW (Just Add Water) playwright's festival at Portland Center Stage. It's a program I'm intimately familiar with -- I was part of the team that launched the festival ten years ago -- but new plays have never really been my passion so it's just one of those things that I dabble in when it's convenient. It is for the most part comforting to know that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- and although that sounds negative, really, I mean it: JAW is probably the most significant thing about Portland Center Stage circa 1998 that still exists today.

The great news is, JAW is still about the playwright. I remember there was much debate back in 1998 about who, exactly, this festival was meant to serve. I for one am particularly pleased at the ongoing distinction that Portland Center Stage can claim: it's not a new plays festival, it's a playwright's festival.

That said, I still don't get most modern playwrights. Saturday afternoon's second matinee, "A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits," was IMHO just as ridiculous and unimportant as I should have expected. While its precious title is not quite as lengthy as others that have instantly dissuaded me (say, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," or "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf"), I usually avoid these pretentious-sounding plays like the plague. In the end, for me, "Rabbits" was a meandering meditation on animal-people devoid of any significance. But that does bring me to another compliment to PCS:

Thanks for making the festival absolutely free. I'm not going to plop down $50 or $5 to see something I suspect is going to be bad, but thanks for letting me sit in the the theater yesterday just to check it out -- I was able to reaffirm my distaste for this type of work. I sincerely appreciate the company's shift to a free festival a couple years ago, and it seems to be helping attract new audiences to the theater while also neatly engaging the broader theater community. There was a theater fair on the street outside, with literature about the upcoming seasons of many groups in town, and also little performances scattered throughout the festival, including the Portland Flash Choir and a dance piece by Lane Hunter in the lobby.

Lane Hunter's dance viewed from above

Prior to the messy "Rabbits," we sat in on Storm Large's new piece, "Crazy Enough," which was amazing and wonderful. Every time I see this woman perform, I become a bigger fan. It was quite moving to hear Storm sing and talk openly and earnestly about her life, which, ever since she was a little girl, has included a certain knowledge that she would grow up to be as crazy as her mother. It was an hour and 40 minutes of really interesting narrative that included a few of the more autobiographical songs from Ladylike plus lots of new material. There was a line around the corner to catch this glimpse of a play that's scheduled to open in March -- and Chris and Storm have got a lot of time now to fine-tune the piece into an even more extraordinary piece of one-woman theater. There are a few construction issues, including a couple abrupt transitions and moments that seem inconsistent with the rest of the piece, but Storm is clearly off to a great start: in the talkback that followed the performance, it sounded like the piece was very well received by Storm groupies and Storm virgins alike.

The line to get in to Crazy Enough

So, make that one great experience at one bad experience at JAW this year. 50-50 works for me. I had the best intentions of catching more new plays in the works, really, but then "Rabbits" deflated me a bit and the cinema lured us in with its "Batman" and its "Mama Mia." (This, too, ended up being a 50-50 experience -- but it wasn't free!)

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