A Gaggle Of Playwrights, A Gallimaufry Of Plays: Northwest 10 Hits Its Fourth Year

What stands out most vividly from the Northwest 10 might be similar to what stands out from last year’s Winter’s Tale, also at the Lord Leebrick Theatre: Local actors Tom Wilson and Dan Pegoda make a good comedic team, and Pegoda plays the banjo well.

Wilson’s not even onstage for their particular pairing in “Lunker,” but his voice echoes in the head long after the 10-minute play, by Kato Buss, comes to an end – an end slightly different, and far more amusing, than the tale on which it’s modeled.

You see, the Northwest Ten doesn’t contain 10 plays – it’s a festival of several 10-minute plays, mostly by Eugene playwrights. This is its fourth year, and the plan for attendees remains the same: Don’t like a play? Wait 10 or 12 minutes, and boom! New play, new characters. Like the weather in Eugene in the spring, I know. Actors and directors tell me it’s fun, and rather a lot of work considering the 10-minute result. This year’s playwrights responded to a theme: Writing on the Wall. In the results, that’s rarely a physical demonstration, more often an ominous phrase hovering over the characters’ actions.

The plays, with their need to set the scene rapidly, establish character and contain a reveal, have an uneven quality that can be charming or annoying. I found myself wishing that they were developed more like sketches, but perhaps I’ve been watching too many random pieces of Portlandia.

Still, playwrights, wouldn’t it be pleasant to develop the idea with your cast? That might create more seamless intentions and better performances. I haven’t asked Kato Buss, but I wonder if he had his two adult characters in mind when he wrote “Lunker” – his play, directed by Mary Gen Fjelstad, exhibited the closest fit between characters as written and actor ability (I should add that in “Lunker,” 8-year-old Nalua Manaois was admirably cute and had all of her many lines down – nicely done).

The bleak “Fool on the Hill” may be one of this year’s keepers, though I wasn’t a big fan of its tone – Ty (Jay Hash) seemed at first to be heading in a different emotional direction than where he ended up, and both Daniel Borson as the annoyingly panicked Steve and Paul Rhoden as the crazed Paul might have been more convincing with less flailing about.

I also kept wondering if these characters had ever read anything about survival in the wild, which was definitely not the half-existential, half-violent point of the play. Or am I taking it too much into the psychological realm when it was the hand of a malevolent spirit (Bob Buechler, the Tree) that caused them to lose their logic? In any case, like a lot of horror, it sticks around.

I suppose loneliness and loss worm their way into our memories and hearts more easily than something like “You Slay Me,” a comedic contribution by Laura Robinson. In that piece, Ron Judd pulls off quite the amusing transformation with a light, surefooted touch that’s fun to see. (Some of the stage business seems too big for the story itself, but it’s still an enjoyable little piece.)

In “Picketing for Pros,” Jorah LaFleur (literally) kicks some serious energy into the proceedings, making her character, Caroline, both outrageous and sympathetic – and hilarious. I admit to an extra laugh at the mention of “an Iowa City clinic” (wave to the fantastic Emma Goldman– is Portland playwright Ari Chadwich-Saund from the Midwest? Hm…). I didn’t think the revelation of Caroline’s actual job fit with her character in general, but again, I might simply want people to be more consistently good than any playwright would go for.

Paul Calandrino is the original NW10 idea guy and one of three producers behind NW10 this year. His contribution is “Cape Perpetua,” in which poor Jay Hash has to play another schlub and Sarah Papineau has to play the schlub’s annoyed girlfriend. I think this piece is a well-intentioned morality tale with characters who are a bit too stereotypical to work. The annoyed girlfriend redeems herself in a fashion that seems both naïve and overly sweet, which is not at all like the other 10-minute plays we’ve seen from Calandrino. I’m uncomfortable with the politics around asking someone who’s not from the disabled community to play a man with a severe disability, but Dale Light performs that character – unfortunately the vehicle for the girlfriend’s redemption – well.

Have you noticed a theme aside from writing on the wall? Many writers are directors or actors in the production. “Fish Climbs Tree”’ by Light features Tom Wilson again acting beautifully (that terrified whine!), but one of the two main premises, involving a gun and a computer, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The last play, “Inner Tube” by Fjelstad, had me laughing despite some awkward acting over the New Age/Western-style “Buddhism” bullshit its characters spout while one rips the other’s heart to shreds – such a perfect play for Eugene.

The turnEnsemble with Brandon Rumsey, James Bean, Sarah Pyle and Noah Jenkins, all students at the UO, provides music between and occasionally during the plays. It’s unobtrusive and provides small little hints about what’s to come in several of the plays.

The NW10 is always a mixed bag – but one that gets the brain spinning. You’ve got one more weekend, this one, to see the plays on Friday or Saturday nights or at the Sunday matinee (there’s a talkback after that one) – the tickets are $15, $12 for people 25 and younger, and you can get them by calling 541-465-1506 or clicking here.

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