DramaWatch: Planning for a bountiful harvest from Fertile Ground

Portland's wide-ranging new works festival offers more than you can manage alone. Plus, new shows from Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and others.

“Conceived and organized by the Portland Area Theater Alliance, Fertile Ground is a new, 10-day, city-wide festival dedicated to the creation and promotion of original works for the theater. Home-grown and wide-ranging, it both reflects and nurtures the creativity, aesthetic diversity and collaborative spirit of Portland’s performing community with three dozen projects in all. Even in these cold, hard times (in terms of the weather and the economy) it looks like something fun and invigorating enough to take root on the highlight calendar of Northwest arts events.”

Doesn’t seem so long ago, really, that I wrote that — in my former life as theater critic for The Oregonian — about the first Fertile Ground festival in January of 2009. Surely enough, the festival did take root and very quickly grew into one of the city’s mid-winter cultural staples. Not only did that first iteration provide proof of concept (a.k.a., “It works!”), but it delivered memorable works such as Christine McKinley’s science-themed coming-of-age musical Gracie and the Atom, Ezra Weiss’s Mad-Hatter-hip jazz version of Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Keystone’s rocketry epic Apollo.

Right off the bat, attendance was in the 10,000 range. Soon, the number of plays/projects/performances on offer doubled, and Fertile Ground became a reliable hot house for buzz-worthy work: The North Plan, Famished, Dear Galileo, Willow Jade The Huntsmen, The Tripping Point, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Hillsboro Story, My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, The Snowstorm…

Maureen Porter joins the CoHo Clown Cohort for “Witch Hunt,” a seriously comic take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” as part of Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Urban Body Project.

So here we are at the 10th anniversary of that inaugural edition, with the 11th annual festival set to kick off on January 24. Chances are good that a critical and/or popular consensus will lift a few of the 70-some presentations to memorable status and/or further development and/or subsequent productions. But the whole idea here is that these shows are new; so while we may have hunches about what’s promising based on the artists involved or the idea they’re pursuing, no one really knows what you really ought to see. Of course there’s the matter of subjectivity. Topics range from Shakespeare to BDSM (er…if you have to ask…), and while my personal “Don’t care!” sign starts flashing red at the thought of, say, vampire stories or circus arts, you might think me a hopeless dolt to be intrigued by a Chekhov adaptation or a drama about gun control.

And schedules only complicate the matter further! For starters, not everyone can do a full Kay Olsen on the thing (Portland theater insiders know what I mean). With so many shows, at venues spread across Portland and (a bit) beyond, at conflicting or overlapping times, even a full-time commitment to the festival wouldn’t allow you to see even half.

So.

Decisions, decisions.

Having read through the 2019 festival guide and fielded several artist’s pitches both via email and at the festival’s annual press “speed-dating” event, I’ve plotted out a schedule that should — stamina willing and the creek don’t rise — allow me to catch 28 shows in 11 days. (Why do I have the feeling that Kay somehow will manage to lap me even at that number?)

And even with careful planning, I’m already disappointed: The evening of Monday the 28th presents a tough choice, with the “work-in-progress performance” of Vortex 1, the Sue Mach/Bill Wadhams musical about an historically fascinating 1970 rock festival, overlapping in time with The Kings of the Carnegie Deli, a reading of a comedy by the wonderful Portland playwright C.S. Whitcomb about Broadway luminaries and pals Bob Fosse, Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner. It’s the only performance of each, so you can’t see both.

Some of the choices were easy: Early afternoon readings, mostly at Artists Rep, introduce the schedule most days, suitable for  for under-employed theater critics but also for real workers on lunch breaks. Among the readings, I’m looking forward to Rich Rubin’s Shakespeare’s Skull; Moscow/Mockba, that aforementioned Chekhov adaptation, of Three Sisters; and Sleepwalker, Jon Farley’s “feminist re-imagining” of the silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And while I’ve always found Greek tragedy a struggle to relate to, I’m curious about Josie Seid’s The Great God of the Dark Storm Cloud, which serves up a contemporary “African-American perspective” on the mythological queen Hecuba.

JoAnn Johnson (left) and Beth Thompson are featured in “The Undertaking,” a highly anticipated workshop production in Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Gary Norman.

A step up in the developmental process brings us workshop productions, as the artists try to refine not just story and script but also various aspects of staging. Though just entering this phase, The Undertaking, conceived and directed by Jessica Wallenfels, figures to be one of the most anticipated of festival shows. Wallenfels directed and choreographed The Snowstorm, the big hit of 2015’s Fertile Ground; here she guides JoAnn Johnson and Beth Thompson in an examination of elder care set to a Shostakovich score played live by the Northwest Piano Trio. CoHo Productions’ producing artistic director Philip Cuomo is another lauded veteran of FG. Last year he turned heads with Philip’s Glass Menagerie, which used the comic physicality of clowning in a radical re-imagining of a Tennessee Williams classic. This time, Cuomo and the CoHo Clown Cohort present Witch Hunt, working the same strange magic on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

A play is never really finished, theater folk will tell you, but a fully staged premiere nonetheless is an end point of sorts. So I’ll be trying to pay particular attention to those shows reaching a putative finish line. Stephanie Alison Walker is a Los Angeles playwright, but her Friends With Guns qualifies for our “homegrown” festival because the Chapel Theatre Collective is giving this script its first full production. Walker examine the gun-control issue from the perspective of a pair of liberal couples, one with the guns, the other with the hair-trigger temperament.

Portland’s Theatre Vertigo has been especially active in fostering new plays of late, the most recent example being The Delays, for which the company commissioned Sara Jean Accuardi, who uses an airport — the home of “hurry up and wait” — as the setting to explore the past lives and lost dreams of a group of characters.

Quigley Provost-Landrum and Trish Egan star in Bonnie Ratner’s “Hazardous Beauty.”

Oh, and look! Here’s Josie Seid again, this time as a director, handling those duties for PassinArt on Hazardous Beauty, a play by Bonnie Ratner (known in part for her work with the August Wilson Red Door Project) in which two women in a memoir-writing class try “making sense of love, work, art and aging” amid a new awareness of intersectionality in their lives and perspectives.

There’s more, obviously, of both what I intend to catch and what for various reasons I won’t even try to get to. I’ll be reporting back on Oregon ArtsWatch (of course) about what I encounter. It’s an exciting couple of weeks in the local theater world, this Fertile Ground. Dig in!

Opening

A few Fertile Ground shows get a jump on the official starting date, including the aforementioned Witch Hunt.

“Sense and Sensibility” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Portland Center Stage mixes the playful with the proper in Kate Hamill’s smash-hit adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

Portland Playhouse explores trauma and the ways people cope with it (sometimes funny or absurd ways) in No Candy, about Bosnian Muslim women who survived the 1995 Srebrenica genocide; with the likes of Sharonlee McLean, Val Landrum, Nikki Weaver and Ben Newman in the cast, there’s sure to be something powerful about it.

Veteran Imago Theatre performer (and ArtsWatch contributor) Danielle Vermette tries her hand as writer/director with the “off-kilter comedy” Dear Marna, which, by the elements in the press release description (identity crisis, dementia, strained/strange family relations of various sorts), sounds a bit like the Carol Triffle Imago shows that Vermette has excelled in as an actor.

Experience Theatre Project continues its experiments in “immersive theater” with an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ever-fascinating The Picture of Dorian Gray.

And Oregon Children’s Theatre celebrates individualism, rock’n’roll and the power of a good outfit in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

Closing

Milagro Theatre’s Judge Torres is another fine example of localism in theater, taking as its subject the journey of Multnomah County Circuit Court judge Xiomara Torres from her childhood in El Salvador to the present, and relating the tale with — according to ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson — symbolism, spirituality and “dreamlike wonderment.” But it ends Saturday.

Best line I read this week

“His body now looks like if an evil scientist had cloned Russell Westbrook, inserted silicone shoulder pads underneath his skin, elongated his appendages by 8 inches and just fed him red meat and electrolytes five times a day.”

— Bill Simmons, at The Ringer, describing the basketball star and generational athletic marvel Giannis Antetokounmpo, a.k.a., “the Greek Freak.”

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