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JAW festival gets historical and journalistic

By Barry Johnson
July 23, 2011
Featured, Theater

Photographer Paul Watson figures in "The Body of an American."

Friday night I caught the final program of the JAW festival at Portland Center Stage, which means I’ve seen eight new plays (plus a couple of shorts) in the past seven days. As my little cousin Lydia used to say, “I is so proud of myself!”

That’s silly, of course, because it’s such a fun immersion in the developmental end of the theater pool. This program — David Grimm’s “Tales From Red Vienna” and Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” — will repeat on Sunday.

Grimm has written several plays that were produced at major regional and New York theater companies, many of them employing either historical material or styles from the theater of Early Modern Europe — Moliere, Marlowe, Restoration comedy, Jacobin theater.  “Tales From Red Vienna” is historical, but the history is fairly recent: The play is set in Vienna immediately after World War I. After the defeat of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, war widows in both were reduced to becoming streetwalkers to survive, and that historical fact animates “Red Vienna.”

The hero of the story is Helena, whose husband, a colonel, was killed near the end of the war. The once-prosperous Helena has moved to a poor apartment and sold off anything of value, though she retains a Edda, a sharp-tongued, practical servant, which is good news. At the end of the play, Helena asks Edda what she’d do without her, and Edda says, “You’ll make lots of mistakes.” Which is funny in the context and also true.

As the play begins, Helena fumbles through an assignation with a john, and then we’re off and running into a combination of domestic comedy and serious drama, with Helena’s survival, psychic and otherwise, in the middle. And then there’s a big surprise at the end that twists things back on themselves.

Grimm is great with witty rejoinders and little aphorisms, and these delightfully punctuate “Red Vienna.”  How did you like the Mahler, asks Helena’s suitor. “It was vulgar and intrusive like you,” Helena responds. I started trying to write down all of the funny lines and gave up — there were too many.

“Red Vienna,” which was directed here by David Esbjornson, now a prominent freelance director and nurturer of new work after a stint at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is probably in its early stages. Grimm said that it has had only one other reading, and that came after only a couple days of rehearsal. But in the audience question and answer period after the show, he seemed pleased with the progress they’d made during his two weeks at the JAW festival.

Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” is the result of several years of emails and one lengthy visit between O’Brien and the Canadian war zone journalist Paul Watson. Watson is most famous for a chilling photograph of the abuse of the body of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland Jr. in Mogadishu in 1993. Watson won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, and his second thoughts about taking it form the central thread of O’Brien’s play.

So, this is a “real” play, autobiographical. We hear Paul tell his story — which involves just about every major hotspot in recent world history, and by “hotspot” I really mean “disaster zone,” from Rwanda to Iraq.  And we hear Dan tell his, which is outwardly more conventional but full of similar psychological issues. The primary tension: Dan idolizes Paul, and Paul has serious doubts about what he’s done, doubts that Dan doesn’t understand.

It’s rapid-fire, especially in the first act, which is a sort of report from the front lines by Paul. And then in the second act, as American and Canadian journalism is de-funded (oh how it’s been de-funded!), it slows down a bit for the visit I mentioned earlier, to the Canadian arctic, where Watson is reporting on the Inuit tribe and how it deals with climate change (more obvious in the polar regions) and the encroachment of Western economics and values. His photograph of polar bears is at the top of the post.

The audience gave “The Body of an American”  a rousing ovation, though Ward Duffy as Paul and Tommy Schrider as Dan earned a portion of that. The play isn’t quite as declamatory as I’ve made it sound — some of the stories that Paul tells are enacted, not just told, for example — and it’s a challenge to keep the momentum going. Duffy and Schrider earned their keep Friday night.

We also rightly admire the risk that photojournalists such as Watson take, the testimony they deliver. We expect them to have psychological problems associated with the killing fields they photograph or film or investigate. But it’s possible that the primary issue they face is squaring their “witnessing,” which they strive to make as clear and truthful as they can, with the entertainment demands of the modern news media.

The “dramatic” shot — emotional and aestheticized — is also the money shot for the journalist and the TV show, magazine or newspaper that distributes it. It must be cropped just so to meet “community standards” and contain just the right elements — kids are the best subjects — to make the cut. After all, one photo or film clip or anecdote is going to represent an entire human catastrophe.

There’s an essential falseness to this, which “The Body of an American” almost addresses — but not quite, at least not in this iteration. Or maybe in the rush of stories and images, I missed it.

I’m intending to do a final wrap-up story on the festival as a whole in the next couple of days, once things have had time to percolate and settle. Stay tuned.


These readings are in the Ellyn Bye Studio, the smaller of The Armory’s two theaters, and reservations are advisable, though I’ve noticed a fairly large number of stand-by patrons making it inside. Reservations can be made by calling 503-445-3700, or in person at the box office of the Gerding Theater at the Armory at 128 NW 11th Ave.


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