Mondays aren't all bad

Although I have recently proclaimed my affinity for Fridays, I realize that’s so very predictable, and I wanted to say that there is something to be said for Mondays. First of all, it’s the day that The Oregonian’s arts and culture coverage, printed, shines most. Four great features on this particular day:

Mondays also tend to be the most friendly morning in the office, as people visit with each other a little longer than usual before delving into their email boxes to delete all of the spam that came in over the weekend. Today there seem to be two primary topics around the water faucet (we don’t have a water cooler): How are you surviving the heat, and did you see anything at JAW?

I was there in the crowd that filled the lobby of the Gerding Theater on Friday afternoon, one of 400 who came for the 4:00 reading of Marc Acito’s new play, Birds of a Feather. It was a who’s who of the theater and literary community, and I counted at least 25 of my facebook friends there -- happy to see that some of them really existed.

When they finally let us in, Chris Coleman welcomed the crowd and gave some nice kudos to the talented staff who had developed this festival from its humble beginnings. Twelve years ago, Robin and I wrote the first grants to the NEA and the Paul Allen Foundation to help get things started, and eleven years ago the first festival took the stage in the Winningstad Theater under the guidance of Jim Nicola of the New York Theater Workshop. That first year really was pretty darn exciting for a company that had focused intensely on mostly classics in the past, and subsequent years have had their ups and downs. But my, how far it has come -- to have 400 people sitting in the theater at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. And not just any 400 people, but a great cross-section of the creative community in general, and the theater community in particular. Very nice.

The play itself proved perfectly fun for a Friday afternoon. Ripped from the headlines of the New York Times and elsewhere, “Birds of a Feather” concerns the curious nature of two gay penguins and a few other related story lines woven it – but like Central Park Zoo itself, we really came to see the penguins, right? And yes, for those of you who wondered, Marc did change the ending in real time to reflect last week’s news that one of the world’s best known gay penguin couples, having nested together for 6 years, “broke up.”

Now if you’ve read any of Marc’s novels, or heard him on NPR, then you know he’s got the one-liners down pat. There were a lot of hearty belly-laughs, and the story also nailed some of the catharsis you want in an evening of theater – the gentle affection of the opening scene, for instance. But I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes subtlety would have worked much better than the overtness on display in the middle of the play. Perhaps it’s a matter of understanding your audience a little better and not trying to appeal to the masses – I venture to guess that 95% of the audience who would pay money for a play about gay penguins already knows that homosexuality is not a violation of nature, so I was surprised at the amount of time we spent investigating this. Or perhaps it’s just that a more interesting theatrical device could be used rather than having the characters deliver the most obvious of statements out loud (like, a zookeeper who says, “nearly every animal species has been known to have gay sex!” or something roughly that plain). Perhaps what I liked most about the play was how nature forced and Marc delivered a nice ending that wasn’t so black and white – and without being tempted by the “homewrecker” storyline possibilities.

I didn’t stay for the talkback – the coast was calling me – so I don’t know if this was addressed, but my biggest concern is that for some reason when Marc Acito writes about certain sexual acts, the audience groans uncomfortably. Some of it’s poor word choice on Marc’s part; a few adjectives and nouns that were intended to shock us felt cheap instead, and had the unintended consequence of undermining the poetry that was on display elsewhere in the script. Now I like good sex talk as much as the next guy, but I’d urge for a little more careful crafting. On Sunday, for example, we heard a play involving sex with swans, and fantasies about cats, that had us rolling the aisles with guilty laughter because of the playwright’s keen awareness of human reaction to every carefully chosen word.

In opting for the coast I knew I’d be missing some gems, and since my return I have heard very good things about several of the readings, “The Japanese Play” (Translation: Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West) in particular. Curious to hear from any readers who have any impressions to share. I did return from the cooler coastal temperatures and migrating whales in time to catch 99 Ways to Fuck A Swan, written by Kimberly Rosenstock and directed by Rose Riordan.

Inspired by the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, and Michelangelo’s lost painting of it, Rosenstock possesses an aforementioned command of dialogue and storytelling that turns art into sex and sex into poetry, helping build a play that is classical fantasy and modern realism all at once. Pure storytelling at its best, and it didn’t hurt that the company of actors were both poignant and hilarious. I quite liked it, although I must confess that I along with many in the audience got a little drowsy toward the end. The play might have been overlong by about 15 minutes, or maybe we all had just had so much darn art in one weekend that we couldn’t really sustain it much past 10:00PM on a Sunday night.

On a final note this Monday morning, we join the rest of the arts community in mourning the loss of Merce Cunningham, who passed away overnight. I feel extremely lucky to have experienced first-hand his expressionist style of movement that was so different than all the rest, only because White Bird brought the company to town. Stephen Marc Beaudoin has covered this nicely over at Blogtown, including a nice remembrance by Walter Jaffe.


MightyToyCannon said...

Nice coverage CJ--and you made it to the coast too! I saw "Futura" on Saturday. That represents a 1000% increase in my JAW participation over last year. (Math nerds can refrain from pointing out that you can't calculate a percentage increase from a base of zero). I may share my thoughts later, though I'm afraid of being shushed for breaking the "no suggestions rule."

Unknown said...

I could have sworn I wrote that first JAW West grant, and that it was to the NEA, not the Allen Foundation! At least, I've been claiming credit for it for years. Either way, it is definitely gratifying to see JAW alive and thriving. Sometimes those grants really are worth something.

culturejock said...

You are so right! You wrote the first public sector grant -- and the first JAW grant ever -- and I wrote the first private sector grant. I'm sure I just copied everything you wrote, anyway. I'll correct the record, and I'll think of some other claim to fame!

MightyToyCannon said...

Wait a minute! I thought I ... I was probably the guy who said, "Yeah, fat chance this project is ever gonna get funded."

Unknown said...

Aw, CultureJock, you didn't have to change the blog - I was mostly laughing at myself for my imagined starring role in the founding of JAW. Any confusion is undoubtedly a reflection of our seamless partnership - we were the Lennon/McCartney of fundraising.

Unknown said...

And I thought that culturejock and Robin were engaged in those days...bottom line, I think we were all drinking a LOT of martinis....