Fertile Ground: one last look

The sprawling new-works festival spawns some hopefuls and the thrill of the new

It’s all over but the shouting (and a few shows, such as The Monster-Builder, Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café, and The End of Sex, that continue their regular runs). Portland’s sixth annual Fertile Ground festival of new works ended its eleven-day run on Super Bowl Sunday – or Groundhog Day, if you prefer – after sprawling across the city and some of its suburbs with the hopes and dreams of hundreds of writers, directors and performers.

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, "The End of Sex." Theatre Vertigo

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, “The End of Sex.” Theatre Vertigo

For some of the dreamers, this was the end, the place where they were either satisfied they’d accomplished what they wanted to or realized they’d hit a dead end. For some, it was back to the drawing board, charged with energy to rework and refine their projects after seeing them onstage. For some, it was a chance to link up with producers or directors. For some, it was the launching of a fully formed new work.

No single person could possibly see all of the shows that were offered during Fertile Ground, although A.L. Adams made a fair stab at it, covering all sorts of them for ArtsWatch. You should check out her incisive and insightful reports. I saw a large handful, too, and decided for the most part not to write about them during the festival’s run. I wanted to get a sense of the festival itself, from its most rough-cut to its A-List attractions. The festival’s appeal, besides the chance to see so much new work, is the insight it offers into the creative process. It’s an opportunity for artists to see their work performed at crucial stages. Often, writers know their new piece isn’t ready for prime time, but having a chance to see it staged even roughly can be enormously helpful in pinpointing what is and isn’t working. A lot of those pieces aren’t ready for critical response: they’re still being formed.

Wherever I went for shows, from Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre to Northwest Academy’s little Bluebox Theater to Artists Rep and a makeshift stage at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, houses were good. Sometimes they were sold out. People were interested. It didn’t matter whether it was a first reading, a staged reading, a low-tech production or a full-out show. Audiences were excited to see the process. In that sense, Fertile Ground is a very Portland event: It asks “what are you doing?,” not “what have you done?”

A few things I saw were still too unformed to write about. Others were in a middle stage, open to a few broad observations. And a few were legitimate, finished shows.

And now, on with the observations (these are not reviews, in the traditional sense) about a few things I saw that stood out for one reason or another.

*

Theodore & Di, by David Berkson, Readers Theatre Repertory at Northwest Academy.

Berkson’s comic drama was a stripped-down but fully formed play, and one of the most interesting things I saw at the festival. It’s a boy-meets-girl tale (online, of course; we live in modern times) about a young film-school grad and a guy who works at a video store – one of the last, superbly and obscurely stocked indies, although he’s mostly into the porn selection. Theodore and Di are the ultimate odd couple. She’s smart and ambitious and bored with her job; he’s low-key and passive and has utterly no filters. It’s his very strangeness, his little-boy openness, that seems to attract Di, very much against her better judgment. Berkson’s script is sharply crafted and brittle: with the wrong actors, everything could fall apart. But Andy Lee-Hillstrom and especially Elizabeth Garrett get it exactly right. She has the tough task of suggesting Di’s conflicting fears and desires and sense of adventure, the emotional confusion that adds up to an unlikely attraction, and she does it beautifully. The author directs the show himself, which isn’t ordinarily a good idea, but in this case seems to have been: Theodore & Di demands a delicate balance, and Berkson knew what he wanted. Good supporting performances by Christie Drogosch as Di’s best friend and Jeffrey Arrington as one of Di’s old boyfriends round things out well. I’d like to see this show move on to a full run.

*

The Temporary Man, music by Scott David Bradner, lyrics and book by A.R. MacGregor, Lakewood Theatre.

This musical revolving around a hostage crisis inside an upscale restaurant is rough, with lots of unresolved issues. For one thing, does this apparently bustling business truly have only three tables? How can the disgruntled fired employee hold off all of the other tables, and everyone in the kitchen, too? And in the second act the play veers oddly into religious-symbolic territory, with its central character taking on Christlike sacrificial qualities. It’s laid on pretty thickly, where suggestion would work far better. But Bradner writes good songs, in something like a Jason Robert Brown mode, and MacGregor is an adept lyricist. Significantly, they’re both young, and their partnership seems like a good one. This play has a long way to go, mainly but not only on the book itself. But I like the partnership, which could prove more important than the play.

 *

Carter Hall, by Claire Willett, “Flash Reads” series at Artists Rep.

This faerieland fantasy is too long and a bit imbalanced and maybe even a little unsure of what its ultimate medium ought to be, and it’s a very good bet that Willett knows all of that. This is the first time on its feet for a sprawling and ambitious project that’s in its early stages, and the “Flash Reads” series provides the writer an excellent opportunity to see where things stand and where they might go next. Carter Hall is based on the old Scottish tale of Tam Lin, kidnapped by the faeries and made into Queen Mab’s lover, and his eventual escape back to the topworld, and the question of changelings and of mercy and compassion and those other things that distinguish the human from the faerie world. Willett mixes in storytelling folk songs from Steeleye Span, and adeptly balances the modern and the ancient, and raises questions of spirituality without proselytizing, in a manner similar to the children’s authors Eloise McGraw (Moorchild) and Madeleine L’Engle (the Wrinkle in Time series). Carter Hall is at a tender stage in its development, but it’s obviously a project with great promise. During the reading’s first act I kept thinking, “Cut, cut, cut!” During the second act I switched to, “No, this is a tall tale, and it wants to ramble.” And that made me wonder whether it might fit more naturally as a novel than onstage. But it’s really too early in the process to make that sort of judgment, and Willett’s task is to make it fit whatever medium she chooses. There’s lots of work to do. But it’ll be fun to track Carter Hall’s progress.

*

The Truth According to Rose, by D.C. Copeland, Independent Publishing Resource Center.

Rose is the second of two short one-acts by Copeland. The shorter, opening Merrily Down the Stream, the on/off sort-of love story of a couple of high school kids, is more scant than Rose, which is the absorbing tale of an older woman dealing with the death of her husband and her own flagging desire to hang onto the world of the living. It’s a sensitive, nuanced piece, intensely observed, and in this reading the veteran Vana O’Brien inhabits it beautifully: an ideal match of performer and role. Alana Byington directs with a sure soft touch, and good support comes from Scott Parker as Rose’s husband, dropping in like a gentle ghost, and Marc Hakim as Rose’s grown son, who tries with equal gentleness to nudge her back into the everyday bustle of life. Again, it’d be good to see this get a longer run.

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