Fertile Ground review: Welcome to the Night Side

Smart creative team makes "The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick" an entertaining ride


Riddle: Who’s in charge of Night Side? That shady town full of werewolves and vampires, creeps and ghouls accessible from our “normal” world only by wily private eyes like Dex Dixon, Manix Marloe and Carl Kolchak, The Night Stalker?

Answer: Why, Frank, the ventriloquist benevolent puppet dictator.

That revelation comes early in Stumptown Stages’ dizzily entertaining new musical about an aging paranormal private eye, premiering at Portland’s Brunish theater as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival. “Filled with puns, guns, vixens, vamps, monsters, music, and mayhem,” the debut run ends today, Sunday, January 31.

Our guide to Night Side, Dex Dixon, is played by Steve Coker, who also wrote the book for The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick, designed the scenes, shared the task of writing the music and lyrics with K.J. McElrath, acted the part. He is also the artistic director of Stage Works Ink. If that isn’t enough to get him elected mayor of Portland then I’m stumped!

But Coker is only part of an exceptional creative team whose combined efforts made Dex Dixon one of Fertile Ground’s most captivating shows.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in "The Adventures of Dex Dixon." Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in “The Adventures of Dex Dixon.” Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Jaime Langton’s witty choreography flowed seamlessly between those with less dance experience like the Vamps (cute little foot twists in “Surrender”) and Dixon and his trusty sidekick werewolf, Lobo (some sweet soft shoe in “Old Dog, New Tricks”) to the veteran dancer playing Nelly, the dangerous dame who sizzles in “Frisk Me, Dex.” More than just well thought out dance steps was the caricature imparted to the dancers and dances. Sydney Weir’s Nelly captured the pretzeled bodied zombie I’ve never seen in a zombie flick but completely believed. Weir isn’t just a clean crisp dancer, she’s a physical actor imbuing Langton’s choreography with over-the-top personality. She crossed and uncrossed her dangerous-dame legs sleazier than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And I mean this in a good way. Two more dance reasons to get you to this show: “The Brainsucker Tango” and the the monster mash between the Weres and the Zombies in “Dex in Danger.”

DD uses a live jazz club quartet prominently displayed visually and aurally. And aural is where the show breaks down. I sat on both sides of the stage and missed about half the lines and even more of the lyrics. Mixing is only partly the reason. A muffled dull speaker system the other. I don’t recall this being an issue in the last musical I saw in this space, or maybe I was so bored by the banal lyrics I tuned out. Dex Dixon, however, is predicated on delicious “Danger Dame At Work” (by Paul Muller) pulp-poetry and puns. Care needs to be given to the audience experience: Are we ALL catching every one of those lines, asides, lyrics?


Fertile Ground reviews: Solo showcases

Single-performer shows highlight Portland's valuable annual new theater works festival

“It takes a great team to create a one-person show,” writes creator/performer Sam Reiter in her program notes to Baba Yaga. The same sentiment was expressed by just about every other writer of the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work shows I saw that relied on a single performer to carry the story onstage. Maybe that teamwork — a hallmark of Portland creativity — helps explain why so many were so surprisingly successful. Whether it’s thanks to the author of a book or play adapted into a FG production, the various shows’ directors, designers, or other backstage contributors, these apparent solo vehicles reflect productive creative collaborations.

Baba Yaga

Reiter herself portrays several characters in her triumphant show at Portland’s intimate Headwaters Theatre, using the notorious mythical crone as a narrator who frames several tales, with Reiter deftly shifting roles as easily as she doffs her babushka, sometimes shedding decades of life experience in the process. And even though Baba Yaga is Reiter’s story, crafted over the past couple years during her studies at Lewis & Clark College and Moscow Art Theatre, she does receive abundant assistance from director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, lighting designer/tech director Corey McCarey, and especially actor/graphic designer/shadow puppeteer Robert Amico, whose silent shadow, projected onto screens, portrays various characters and whose gorgeous designs really enhance the mythological atmosphere.

“Baba Yaga is at once kind and cruel, amoral and material, helpful and hindering,” Reiter writes. “In some stories, she is either good or evil; in others, she is a mixture of both.” Reiter’s announced intention is to somehow reconcile those contradictions in the various portrayals of the infamous character from Slavic mythology — a tough challenge as the legends likely arose from different sources over centuries. And yet Reiter cleverly manages to concoct or discern a plausible character motivation for a complex archetype.

"Baba Yaga." Photo: Trevor Sargent.

“Baba Yaga.” Photo: Trevor Sargent.

To understand all may be, as the saying goes, to forgive all, but in this early incarnation of the show, Reiter may have gone a bit too far in sympathizing with her bloodthirsty protagonist, who comes off as more a relatively benign trickster than a wicked witch capable of the cannibalistic cruelty in some of the tales. Though “there’s always a risk that she will gobble you up,” Reiter’s notes explain, I never felt much risk; I wanted moments with a sharper edge, a little more blood, and maybe a bit less Portland nice in both the action recounted and Reiter’s portrayal. But she’s surely found an original and compelling angle on a complex character and a story that I hope she’ll continue to develop — abetted, of course, by the rest of her excellent creative team.

Dear Committee Members

Readers Theatre Repertory actor David Berkson also plays his character a bit Portland-nicer than the source material in his engaging premiere performance of Dear Committee Members at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, RTR’s longtime home. Berkson’s own adaptation of Julie Schumacher’s popular *link novel that skewers academic pettiness is an entirely epistolary adventure, in which he reads the letters prolifically generated by a self-styled “cantankerous pariah” English professor (tenured, of course, so he can get away with his sardonic, sometimes vitriolic missives) at a lower-tier university.

This might not sound like a promising set-up for drama, but Berkson’s performance is far more than a straight reading, as Schumacher’s novel is much more than merely a series of satirical jabs — though it is that, too. And it’s not just for veterans of academe’s absurdities and annoyances.


Into the Woods with Baba Yaga

Fertile Ground: Sam Reiter embodies the Slavic wise woman of the forest in a compelling foray into the mythological



The Headwaters Theater is on the beaten tracks. Passing by the huddled Arts and Crafts homes of old North and Northeast Portland and down a winding path, you end up right against the railroad tracks, where the full-speed-ahead comings and goings of lumber-cars packed high to the rafters are signed off by the fugitive and ornate scripts of graffiti artists. It’s then just a small journey to the Headwaters stage: as can never be overstated, Portland’s vibrant theater scene can take you to hidden places, where at the end of the night it is well worth the time. Down this road, heading out to the little-known, you’ll find the creative spark of Sam Reiter’s Baba Yaga.

Reiter as "The Maiden Tsar." Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter as “The Maiden Tsar.” Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter’s folk-steeped performance, part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, touches on the history and nature of the feminine. There’s been some contemporary ferment history-wise for women, who have been searching for their mostly undocumented past in the grand annals that celebrate battles, buildings, and heads of state. Silvia Federici‘s Caliban and the Witch came out more than a decade ago and signaled a change in the grassroots memories of women through time. The Slavic folk figure Baba Yaga (Bah-buh Yuh-gah) is not necessarily a witch, but rather the personification of the outlaw: an older woman living alone in the forest in a movable house supported by chicken feet. By her connection to a natural and personal power, as reinforced by thunderclaps and frights, she’s been given an overall “yes” from the universe.

Reiter, directed by Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, takes on the powerful-woman mythos in a majestic, loving performance that is an invocation of an old spirit. We’re in a small, but professional-looking theater. The sounds of Gogol Bordello, the Romani punk band from the outskirts of the still-fragmenting Iron Curtain, fill our ears. We’re reminded that our understanding of the Slavic East – Ukraine, the Ashkenazi shtetls, the Russian quarter of a continent – is deficient. While we may leaf through our Nabakov and celebrate his butterfly collection, there’s a deeper literary trust that has been ghosted out by the West. The pushing and pulling begins with Baba Yaga, and with Reiter, dragging along through the metaphysical veil in a specific storytelling tradition that has universal parallels. Baba’s a diva, in the Brahmanic sense, and beyond – like a sweet but uncertain Bangkok rickshaw driver, for instance; or like the jazz legend Miles Davis, half-person in body, and half-spirit, too, a little otherworldly: someone we go to for wisdom, but there’s never enough time on the clock for him to explain what we will barely understand. Reiter has loved Baba Yaga for a long time, and the deep knowledge of the wistful woman is real from the start.

In the next hour, the magic of sunlight passing across morning dew, the fragments of old book pages making the air musty, the hero’s quest, are alive. Reiter, supported by Robert Amico’s effective shadow puppetry, is Baba Yaga: a feral look in her eyes, a young woman transformed into the old crone who transmits messages from the stardust down to us, the very frequent inhabitants who lie in error of the universe.

Layers and layers of images tell some of the many stories of Baba Yaga. The dreams or nightmares we had as children: a panic with breadcrumbs; being saved by small, but impressive animals; finding the way to true love. In many productions of fairytale theater, the obvious intent is to cultivate future theatergoers, and right they should. But Baba Yaga is the pure magic of stardust settling, and because of its very nature, it is prone to singe us here and there. It’s an archetype, resurrected: raw, age-old storytelling.

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent


Baba Yaga continues through January 28 at The Headwaters. Ticket and schedule information are here.




Just art: a creative shot in the arm

Fertile Ground: Vertigo's vivid premiere of Rob Handel's "I Want To Destroy You" takes smart and funny aim at academia and the outer limits of art

Life’s not going especially well for Harold, a sort-of-famous artist who’s now teaching grad students at a richer-than-thou private college, and he really likes it, actually, but there are … problems. His ex-wife is out of the picture somewhere – California, it sounds like – and his teenage daughter, Micki, comes to visit, prodding him for more of a relationship than he seems willing to commit to. His roof’s got a bad leak, and he’s unfortunately seriously ticked off the roofer, Andy. He’s up for tenure, but his friend and mentor Bob is in a hospital, dying, and the school dean, a crafty-smooth politico named Stephanie (everyone’s on a chummy first-name basis around here, even when they’re decidedly not chums), seems strangely unsympathetic: downright threatening, you might say. Then there’s Mark, the weirdo grad student, who comes to class to give a presentation on a conceptual piece, and in the process starts waving a handgun around. Which very much freaks out the other students, earnest Ilich and leafy Leaf, and throws a serious scare into Harold, which is both completely understandable and a tad ironic, because, after all, the work that made Harold famous and a prize catch for the richer-than-thou college in the first place was the performance piece where he had himself shot. With a rifle. What goes around, as they say, comes around. And on the other end of things, it looks scary.

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

Monkey see, monkey do: Orr and Epstein as student and teacher. Photo: Gary Norman

So goes Theatre Vertigo’s I Want To Destroy You, the premiere production of a play by Rob Handel that is smart and funny and argumentative in a very good way and a little sprawling and by turns deeply satiric and emotionally telling, and all in all a fascinating, compellingly turned show. It’s also Vertigo’s entry in the Fertile Ground festival of new works, and to understand it deeply it’s good to know some of the background that Handel, who is head of the dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and so knows some of this material intimately, uses. Which means, first of all, knowing that harried Harold is a stand-in for, or at least inspired by, a guy named Chris Burden.


And that creates something of a conundrum for me, because I’ve spent decades purposely averting my attention from Burden. I ignore him the way some people pointedly ignore Justin Bieber or Donald Trump or Dinesh D’Sousa or Noam Chomsky or any member of the Kardashian clan, hoping against hope that they’ll just go away.


Way down under, trapped on ice

Fertile Ground: Lawrence Howard spins a tale of bravery, isolation, and endurance in Antarctica in "Shackleton, the Untold Story"

Lawrence Howard, Portland’s best-known armchair adventurer and one of the city’s most engaging raconteurs, returned to the stage at Alberta Abbey on Saturday night with another tale of gritty endurance and testing of mettle at the ends of the world. Shackleton, the Untold Story unfolds the adventure of the other, less glamorous, and in certain ways more calamitous arm of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his failed but valiant attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, a brutal trek of 1,800 miles through the most forbidding climate on Earth. (The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had made it to the South Pole and back three years before, but not across the entire continent.)

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

The Untold Story, a fresh piece from Portland Story Theater that is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, expands on a tale Howard first told in 2012, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of the Endurance. This time around, Howard concentrates on the disaster that beset the expedition’s support crew, whose task was to approach the continent from Hobart, Tasmania, sail into the relatively well-known Ross Sea, and establish a series of supply camps from the ice floes to the Beardsmore Glacier that the main expedition could use for rest and sustenance on its way across the continent after reaching the South Pole. But, while Shackleton’s Endurance got caught in the ice floes during foul weather and set adrift with the crew aboard during its approach from the South American side, the 10 members of the support crew suffered a far more perilous disaster: their ship, the Aurora, broke loose in a gale and drifted back across the ocean, finally landing, unmanned, on the southern shore of New Zealand, thus alerting the public for the first time that the largely inexperienced crew was marooned on the ice.

It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora, having been repaired and refitted, returned to rescue the survivors. In between lay a tale of disaster, extreme fortitude, mistakes, bad decisions, near-misses, and the stresses of life at the extreme. Dogs, those essential workers and companions, perished. Terrifying storms set in. Isolation dampened men’s souls. Rash decisions and brave actions became grueling commonplaces. Scurvy ravaged the crew, bending and weakening men already tested to the physical limit. Death arrived, sometimes inevitably, sometimes foolishly.

As a teller, Howard takes his time, without letting things drag. This is about a two and a half hour journey, including intermission, which is of course a snap of the finger compared to the excruciatingly frozen ticking of the Antarctic clock for these men, who had no distractions from the elements and the moment-to-moment need to survive. But Howard is an excellent guide, an amiable and quietly compelling companion, and it’s worth the time. He’s a bit of a storytelling engineer, or mechanic: he builds his tale on a careful construction of details that suggest the intense tedium of these men’s lives on the edge, and yet keep us constantly enthralled by the large picture of human challenge and adventure. At key points he cuts back to the story of the main Shackleton expedition, so that we know more about what was happening than anyone in either party knew at the time. In the end, he does what storytelling does best: he sits us down beside a virtual fire and tells a tale of adventurous deeds. We get to shudder, and marvel, and then go safely home.


Shackleton, the Untold Story repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 30, at Alberta Abbey as part of the Fertile Ground festival. It’s also scheduled to play at The Pavilion in Cascade Locks on March 26, and at the Cascades Theater in Bend on April 16.




Cast a glass eye: Faith Helma’s alchemy

"I Hate Positive Thinking," a solo show at the Fertile Ground festival, takes a skewed look at the self-improvement industry


Faith Helma brings her alchemy to the stage with I Hate Positive Thinking.

The stage at Shout House, where this Fertile Ground festival show had its world premiere on Friday and continues through February 7,  is curated with found objects: an overly plush zebra textile that a Burner would glue-gun into a vest; a small nautical shelf that a housewife in Maine would put her glass lobster curios on; a fire-engine-red tape deck from the early ’90s; a blanket patterned with blue flower motifs from an imaginary art period; two electric candles that may have been placed on a window sill for overzealous Christmas decorating. Helma’s aura of purpose in her “manifesto against the self-improvement industry” radiates from the collection. Over the next hour, she transforms these conspicuous props as agents through her performance.

Faith Helma, solo. Photo: NicholeStewart

Faith Helma, solo. Photo: NicholeStewart

Helma shapes her metamorphosis into an elegant and vulnerable piece that takes a careful look into the meaning of life as defined by its constant adoration of change. Helma, in her light electric blue sateen jumpsuit, makes solemn transitions from curious, to lost, quixotic, despairing, raging, tender, intellectual; all framed by the important idea that the quest, no matter how small or unknown, is at the heart of the living experience.

The power behind I Hate Positive Thinking begins with its honesty and the way it makes connections between an armchair philosophy and a much bigger theater of the world. Helma’s space invites and honors the audience to become part of her process, and makes I Hate Positive Thinking truly a work in progress. It is constantly growing. Each performance is born new and not quite the same.

Helma’s take on the nonsense of “positive thinking” is real, and sometimes starkly funny. How did we get from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to How to Tame Your Inner Gremlin as coping mechanisms in an uncertain world?

Walking away from Helma’s performance is in itself a paradox: you feel lighter in your shoulders; it touches your anger and regret, and opens new eyes on the world. I Hate Positive Thinking is less about the self-help industry and more as if Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and performance artist Janine Antoni had made a one-person show. There is a binary trend in the dramatic arts to celebrate both the rawness of the underscored and the opulence of grand productions. Helma does neither, but transmutes big ideas into what could be called everyday life, and honors that that is exactly the meaning we begin with.


I Hate Positive Thinking continues through February 7 at Shout House, 210 S.E. Madison St., Suite 11. Ticket and schedule information here.

Woman, trapped

Sue Mach's stage adaptation of "The Yellow Wallpaper" at CoHo feels like the pit of your stomach, ripped out


In its December 2015 issue, Harper’s Magazine published The Bed-Rest Hoax: The case against a venerable pregnancy treatment. The essay’s author, Alexandra Kleeman, was the person at rest, and was taking her doctor’s prescribed leave in the Pacific Northwest. She writes in detail of the mental prison she assumes while on bed-rest, and the decline of her body.

The Yellow Wallpaper, a 6,000-word story on a similar theme by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published 123 years ago. For all you nonbelievers in equal rights, this is to say in print that not a whole lot has changed.

But CoHo’s production of Sue Mach’s new play The Yellow Wallpaper isn’t about that. It’s a psychological thriller that will leave you feeling like the pit of your stomach was ripped out and lost down a hole. Even if you haven’t been a woman who’s been medically sent to “rest,” any person who’s ever felt trapped will feel in every synapse of their nervous system the helpless collapse of closing doors as your freedom slips away in fits and starts. Mach has made for the stage the play you see in your mind as you read the original story.

Grace Carter, caught in the wallpaper. Photo: Holly Andres

Grace Carter, caught in the wallpaper. Photo: Holly Andres

The Yellow Wallpaper is a semi-autobiographical cry for change that Perkins Gilman sent to the pioneering physician who administered his cure, after she suffered from a then-undiagnosed case of postpartum depression. A usual graduate school tract, The Yellow Wallpaper is studied as a look at early American feminism and has much in common with its forerunner, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Mach takes the platform of Perkins Gilman’s poetic tale of losing every part of herself and confines us in a room that anticipates Sartre’s No Exit and seems to draw from the death chambers of a Brontë novel.


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