Fertile Ground Review: PDX Playwrights Shorts

'Show Us Your Shorts, Again': the year of nosy narrators, bawdy humor and imaginary friends

Last year during Fertile Ground, ArtsWatch caught almost all of the shows that PDX Playwrights staged, and wrote two articles full of summary thoughts. This year we saw more shows across the board, but managed to catch only Playwrights’ sampler of six vignettes, Show Us Your Shorts, Again. Correspondingly short, but nevertheless appreciative, the reviews are in:

Last year's photo, same faces: actors Garland Lyons, Katie Watkins and Rosalind Fell.

Last year’s photo, same faces: actors Garland Lyons, Katie Watkins and Rosalind Fell.

The Flimflam Shamble and Irrespective Perspective
by Brad Bolchunos
Between last year’s Cranial Camaraderie and Wears Fishnets and this year’s pieces, I’m starting to spot Bolchunos’s pet conceits: absurd humor, linguistic twists, gangster noir, cockeyed impossible romance, and ruptures of a particular wall—not the fourth one that separates the audience from the cast, but an adjacent one that separates a play’s narrator from its characters. This season, Bolchunos’ narrators don’t know their place; they interject and overbear and try to steal the story.

In FlimFlam, a character of the same name (Curt Hanson) hits on a young woman (Katie Watkins) at a train station, attempting to charm her with high-stakes mobster tales from his alleged past. But a spectral naysayer named Heceta (Rosalind Fell) and the nosy narrator (Nevan Richard) both talk-block his efforts, contradicting him at many turns. With Heceta as his conscience and the narrator as his memory both trying to keep him honest, FlimFlam finds it harder to editorialize his story. Nevertheless, “Nothing flimsy in my whimsy; no shame in my sham,” claims FlimFlam, defending his right to enrich life (and even prolong it?) with colorful storytelling. The train will take us all sooner or later; might as well make the most of the moment.

Bolchunos’s Irrespective Perspective sets several potential romances in a bookstore, gives a couple of the characters relatable dispositions and a couple of others bizarre idiosyncrasies, and then stirs the pot. Rosalind Fell’s contrary character Alexandra has the odd habit of saying the exact opposite of what she means. She tries to flirt with Clyde (Garland Lyons) while claiming that she hates his suit and she wouldn’t like to meet up sometime. Fiona (Watkins), a Hot Topic goth in the midst of rebuffing normal guy Edward (Andrew Garretson) and bizarre “hip” grandpa George (Hanson), finds herself drawn to the dashing but oblivious Danvers (Nevan Richard). This show’s intrusive narrator, just like the other, breaches the boundary, though it takes us a minute to realize that the bookstore patrons can actually hear him. Danvers loudly announces his thoughts about Fiona, broadcasting his attempt to discreetly peek at her and his plan to approach. Amazingly, she responds in kind.

They Are Afraid of You, Shawn
by Kate Belden
If Bolchunos has a specialty, Belden does as well: brain maladies, and familial coping. Last year’s staged reading of the full-length March showed us a neuroscientist recovering from a brain hemorrhage. This year the much shorter They Are Afraid of You, Shawn shows a couple observing their son and discussing what’s to be done about his ADD. Father Sam (David Loftus) is ridden with guilt that he may be the source of the genetic curse. Mother Claire (Katie Mortenmore) has her own source of self-loathing: she’s afraid she’s become “boring,” somewhat in reaction to her husband’s habits, but somewhat of her own accord. After trading blame and going over their treatment options, they eventually draw strength from each other’s resolve to make the situation work, folding into a hug as they gaze offstage at the son they’ll have to handle.

As in March, Belden’s material here seems well-researched and realistic. Unlike March, the short format confines the best aspects of her craft. There’s no room here for her to weave in metaphor or gradually unfold complex interpersonal dynamics, and these are skills at which she excels. Here, there’s only time for a few sympathetic musings. Here’s hoping Belden can either reprise March as a fully staged show or dig into another more immersive full-length story soon.

Replacing Jack
by John A. Donnelly
Thank goodness this one is written by a man; it explains the sardonic, delusional picture it paints of a single adult woman. In John A. Donnelly’s Replacing Jack, the seemingly unsatisfiable and mentally disturbed Marcie (Kathleen Barnebey) has chosen to envision imaginary boyfriends, loosely basing her longest-term spectral swain one on Jack Nicholson because, as we learn in their dialogue, she incessantly rewatches his movies on video, alone, at home (presumably while the Red Baron cooks her boxed pasta?). David Loftus plays him, as well as the jealous, macho (also imaginary) Spike and the latest addition: a sensitive self-improver from her gym named Brad who may actually be real…but we’re given cause to doubt it. “I’m so confused,” exclaims the addled woman, adding that she may be better off without boyfriends at all.

This piece isn’t portrayal, it’s commentary from an unseen narrator: a man who’s dissatisfied with dissatisfied women. Falling short of absurdism or satire, it’s sketch comedy with single women as its general brunt.

NOTE: The writer had to duck out of producing duties for health reasons, so what we describe is a hands-off delivery of his work. Perhaps the piece would have come across differently had he been able to give notes? Of course ArtsWatch wishes him a speedy recovery.

Two Starches
by John Servilio
Mother Mary (Kathleen Barneby) and father Lou (Kevin Newland Scott) sit down to a home-cooked Italian supper with their grown son Joseph (Rob Harris). But when he requests bread with his stuffed shell pasta, his mother refuses him with the evasive excuse that he can’t have “two starches.” But his father can. He’s “experienced.” She refuses to explain further but urges him to enjoy and “explore” his pasta shell. To the playwright’s credit, we only gradually realize that this is an explicit sex-ed lesson that a well-meaning but meddlesome Italian mother has sprung on her unsuspecting son. Her demonstrations of how to lick the shell and innuendos about how “a thin noodle only goes so far” are hardly highbrow, but they get the whole audience howling.

Cue
by Michael Cooper
A boldly Beckett-esque scene pits three Hamlets against each other and forces them to wait together in a breezeway and knock on locked doors. Hippie Hamlet (Lawrence Siulagi) has the best luck, managing to gain entry and exit while the other tortured heroes remain locked out. Classic Hamlet (David Loftus) pontificates and postures, but can’t get a break. Female Hamlet (Rebecca Tolund) answers every overture with a chip on her shoulder about cross-gendered casting, and German Hamlet (Nick Walden Poublon) spouts bizarre mentions of using farm animals in past shows, but gradually breaks this character and loses his accent as the tedious waiting wears on. Ultimately, the piece delivers exactly what absurdism has come to promise: a wacky premise, unpredictable lines, uneventful action and an intentionally dissatisfying conclusion.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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