I still can’t get over it sometimes–Performance Network is a real Equity theatre. Founded in the early 1980s, it lived on table scraps in that little black hole over on Washington for years and now it’s a polished, regional repertory theatre. It’s like watching a ragged ghetto kid graduate from Princeton.

I sometimes miss those old, edgy days, though, when you’d walk out in the parking lot for a smoke at intermission and hear people hissing “What the hell is this about?”

The Fireside Festival of New Works, four nights of staged readings of new plays at the Performance Network, brings back a little of that nervous, raw energy. The plays are in what you’d call late-workshop stage–not entirely jelled. With no sets, and only minimal props and blocking, the actors work with scripts in hand. Equity regulations limit rehearsal time for staged readings to eight hours per play, and while the actors don’t have the lines memorized, this is a good reminder of the remarkable bundle of skills professional actors possess. With only eight hours of work, they bring fully realized characters to the stage and use the scripts unobtrusively, only for prompting.

There’s an optional second part to these evenings. In the talkback afterward, the struggles the playwrights have gone through trying to press the final flaws out of their scripts are teased out by the audience.

The first night, Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Night Blooming” threaded Native American mysticism through a three-generation chain of strong women in the Southwest, exploring mother-daughter bonds and the ebb and flow of love and loss. It was a weeper all right. “Night Blooming”‘s problem wasn’t that it was unfinished. It was almost too finished–one of the audience early in the talkback nailed the problem, questioning whether the technical descriptions of medical procedures tipped it into “Movie of the Week” predictability.

The second night of the Fireside Festival was “Victoriana” by Jason Sebacher, a fantastically audacious and, in the first act, nearly perfect piece of absurdism. Think “The Aristocrats” as told by Ionesco. Once in the first act, and again in the second, “Victoriana” stopped my heart with the delicious sensation of “I can’t believe I’m watching this on a stage.” In the talkback, a woman in the audience began “I’m a trained sexologist…” and there wasn’t anyone in the room who didn’t want to hear how she was going to finish that sentence.

The Fireside Festival continues tonight (September 29) with “Thorstein the Staff-Struck: A Tale from the Icelandic Sagas,” by Russ Schwartz, and September 30, “The War Since Eve,” by Kim Carney. Pay what you can–suggested ticket price $10.