4X4 review: quality quartet

PDX Playwrights' Fertile Ground showcase presents diverse selection of short takes

An agitated, hooded man angrily approaches a Transportation Security Administration agent at an airport security station, demanding to know what they’re doing to his son. Violence seems likely to erupt any moment.

That was the arresting opener of Contraband, the opening play in Fertile Ground‘s 4X4: a Collection of One Acts. Produced by PDX Playwrights, the local reading group whose many contributions to the annual showcase of new works amounted to a festival within a festival, the four short one-acts performed at Portland’s Hipbone Studios demonstrated the group’s eclectic variety of theatrical approaches. This creative generator (whose meetings I attend) makes a fine pairing with Fertile Ground’s annual performing arts incubator.

Tom Wiitherspoon and Jonathan Wexler (or is it the other way around?) in ‘Steve and Steve,’ at PDX Playwrights 4×4: A Collection of One Acts. Photo: Charlie Latourette.

As Contraband’s tense encounter continued, a TSA supervisor joined in, until the low-level agent was able to find enough common ground to get the dad conversing instead of confronting. As Karen Polinsky’s play progressed, with the guard mediating between the father and the higher level TSA bureaucrat, we learn that the dad’s obnoxiousness really arises from fear — not just about the incident that landed his son in lockup, but about the boy’s differentness, and more.

It’s an affecting set up, but in a talkback after the show, an audience member asked the playwright whether she intended it as the opening to a full-length play. She said no, but I had the same question. Whether because the characters are so compelling that we demand to know more about them, or because the action here alone doesn’t provide much more than a brief glimpse into a troubled family situation, Contraband feels incomplete in this attenuated form, never quite delivering the payoff promised by that grabby tense opening. If she’s inclined, I hope Polinsky looks for more from these characters, and finds it.

Cory Huff, Sofia May Cuxim and Nic Chase in ‘Contraband.’ Photo: Karen Polinsky.

I couldn’t even follow the story, much less solve the puzzle in The Mystery of the Glass Ceiling — but I didn’t care a whit. Convoluted plot lines that never really add up are a hallmark of the noir detective genre Meridawn Duckler’s mostly entertaining play spoofs, from The Maltese Falcon on down. The set up plops a not-so-fatale femme-inist in the usual hardboiled PI’s gumshoes, but the merriment here is all in the Tommy gun dialogue, the characters profusely spraying so many puns, double-entendres, and genre send-ups that the wounded audience’s groans and chuckles sometimes overlapped.

Generally we avoid talking too much about production details in covering a developmental festival, but the outstanding ensemble acting delivered here by an electrifying Jamie M. Rea, Sarah McGregor (in multiple roles), Gary Strong, and Tom Walton really would have put this silly comedy over the top, if it hadn’t already gone there.  I hope this Mystery gets some needed trimming, and then another staging.


Iulia Brezeanu in ‘The Sea.’ Photo: Christopher Serra.

From 1930s noir to 1950s European art cinema — Christopher Serra’s moody The Sea seemed to drift dreamily in the ocean waves after Duckler’s madcap mystery. Well-cast Romanian actor Iulia Brezeanu’s halting interior monologue, delivered in a vaguely pan-European accent, made me feel like I was in a midcentury French art film. In fact, the pauses (maybe caused by a cold as much as an attempt to make it sound like her character, Elle, was really making it up as she went along) sometimes stalled the story. I almost expected brief punctuating blackouts between sentences. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Serra’s day job is making films; this is his first stage play.

As Elle passionately recounted her turbulent affair with a recently deceased lover  — first directed to an unknown listener, or maybe herself, and then, shifting to second person to address his spirit — The Sea became an intermittently absorbing character study of first the dead lover (who never appears onstage) and ultimately Elle herself.

From moody monologue to daffy duet: the rigorously rehearsed actors in 4X4’s closing segment performed like a piano duo playing a four-hands piece at the same keyboard. Just as the players have to choreograph every movement to avoid a twenty-finger pileup as they divide phrases among their hands, Jonathan Wexler and Tom Witherspoon were literally finishing each other’s sentences, pausing at justtherightmoment to let the other squeeze in a word or phrase edgewise.

That’s the fun of Charlie Latourette’s Steve & Steve, a sly portrait of two identically clad and characterized businessmen — or is it a single businessman talking to himself? — desperately trying to convince themselves how adventurous and individualistic they are. Alas, we learn that they turn out to be conformist cubicle monkeys after all. Latourette’s other career in office settings clearly produced plenty of character insights as well as, no doubt, memos and meetings. Whether one character or a matched pair, Steve & Steve made a delightful double team to close out one of the most enjoyable Fertile Ground shows I saw this year.

Want to read more about Oregon theater? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.