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.

Told over the course of a single academic year (naturally), the play chronicles admitted egotist Prof. Jason T. Fitger’s struggles to arrest his English department’s declining status, budget and working conditions and his efforts to obtain fellowships, jobs, and other benefits for his colleagues and students. The main thread involves his increasingly desperate attempts to secure decreasingly prestigious positions for a talented if self-doubting young advisee whose career he hopes to advance, just as his mentor did for him a generation earlier. But he’s often thwarted by his own honorable, even Aspergers-like inability to countenance the everyday duplicity and flattery needed to advance in any bureaucratic setting; in one case, he can’t help undermining his recommendation by pointing out the unnecessary apostrophe in the name of the company he’s soliciting for a job for his student.

David Berkson adapted and stars in "Dear-Committee-Members" at Readers Theatre Repertory. Photo: JasmineSpiegel.

David Berkson adapted and stars in “Dear-Committee-Members” at Readers Theatre Repertory. Photo: JasmineSpiegel.

Over the course of an hour, we learn Fitger’s history of romantic failures, academic grudges and resentments, and the slow downward spiral of his writing career after promising beginnings. As the old saying goes, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, making a humorous contrast with the good professor’s lofty language and aspirations for his students, department and literature itself.

Almost every letter elicited chuckles and sometimes guffaws from the audience, thanks to both Schumacher’s barbed text (even the salutations, like signing himself “author-provocateur,” are frequently funny) and Berkson’s arch, quasi-Colbertian delivery. Moving back and forth between a pair of lecterns, veering from brilliant crankiness to soaring dudgeon, his cheerfully wry approach (directed by RTR’s Wendy Wilcox) compels the audience to root for him, and makes the script’s eventual unexpectedly poignant turn into idealism and real pathos believable. Still, it might also be stimulating to see the role played (possibly by an older actor) with a touch of bitters, more jaded acidity — think the late Alan Rickman — that the text also seems to invite. Both the show and book are worth your time just for the sly humor. But both also pack a lot more depth and power than that.

Noise in the Waters

Unlike Dear Committee Members, Boom Arts’s Noise in the Waters actually was conceived for performance. Award winning Italian playwright Marco Martinelli’s 2010 drama chronicles an earlier refugee crisis that prefigured today’s: migrants fleeing to Europe in the wake of that year’s Arab Spring upheavals. According to producer Ruth Winkler’s introductory remarks, Martinelli thought his play would soon be dated. Alas, it’s proved instead to be prescient.

It’s a shame that only one performance was staged, because Noise in the Waters has much to offer, from Stephen Miller’s spare, watery patterns projected onto the walls inside Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre to Portland composer Ryan Francis’s Eno-esque, mostly ambient score, which Francis (working his laptop from his spot in the audience) sensitively adjusted to complement the onstage action. Together, they conjured a consonant audio-visual environment that ranged from gentle to tense, the latter thanks to some deftly applied static sound distortion at key moments.

Bobby Bermea.

Bobby Bermea.

The story unfolds elliptically and impressionistically from the point of view of a military officer who’s in charge of managing aspects of the unexpectedly deadly and overwhelming crisis, including identifying the bodies of refugees who perished in the Aegean during their risky raft journeys from North Africa to Europe. The officer tells the stories of some of the refugees, which were based on true stories gathered by playwright Martinelli from Libyan survivors of the journey. The most poignant involves a young boy, Jean-Baptiste, triggering memories of that tragic photo of little Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last fall. The officer often seems to be trying to avoid the emotional enormity of what he’s witnessed, cursing not the military and political forces that created the refugee crisis but rather the sea creatures that fed on their bodies, making them harder to identify. It’s a smart framing device that avoids sentimentality and gains power through the mundanity of its narrator and his concerns.

Unfortunately for this production, the script’s native Italian doesn’t always connect in English, at least in this translation by Thomas Simpson. Rendered as a sort of prose poem or poetic monologue, with rapidly shifting narrators and points of view, the language sometimes comes off stilted, distancing me in the early stretches until I settled into its peculiar perspective.

What made it work sporadically was Bobby Bermea’s impassioned, multifaceted performance, a one-man show all the more impressive considering the theatre’s capacious space. The veteran Portland actor was clearly prepared for the script’s abrupt twists and turns, almost effortlessly sliding into wildly varied characters and emotional states. Ably directed by Ruth Wikler-Luker, it was a tour de force performance that accomplished the production’s main purpose: making me empathize with the people (nearly a million refugees fleeing Syria for Europe last year alone) behind the already receding headlines, and even with that military officer who has to deal with some of the consequences.

Boom Arts also brought in Mercy Corps workers recently returned from helping with the crisis and a political science prof to explain the context. I do hope the performance is repeated, but I really wish I spoke Italian so I could hear the original, with all the connotations and nuances. Sadly, the tragic story looks to remain timely for a long time to come.

Noise in the Waters.

Noise in the Waters.

1000 Tongues

Language also posed a challenge to the final one-person show I saw during Fertile Ground’s first week. But given its title (and the fact that the half hour workshop production was announced as the seed of a work very much in progress), 1000 Tongues verbal inscrutability didn’t really come a surprise.

1000 Tongues.

1000 Tongues.

Somewhere between concert and performance art, Danish performer Nini Julia Bang’s solo performance began with her seated in the front row of the performance space, playing a drone on her cello, as the audience filed in and took our seats in rows of folding chairs arrayed on stage. Gradually she added vocals and recording tones with her looping pedal, then playing and singing over them. Later, she crouched on the stage to play harmonium. The program included traditional music from Romania, Bulgaria, Kurdistan, Iran, and beyond, as well as Bang’s own original compositions, with the “musical and visual landscapes” jointly created by Bang and director Samantha Ravenna Soley Shay.

Enveloped by occasional gouts of stage smoke, Bang slowly moved around the stage, interacting wordlessly with a suspended sheer curtain, in movements that variously suggested anger and anguish. Despite the fact that Shay told us that they’d only had a few days to prepare this phase of the project, everything including transitions between the several “movements” flowed pretty smoothly; it felt tightly rehearsed and, at half an hour or so, didn’t overstay its welcome.

Still, as visually striking the scenario and movement and vocally impressive Bang’s voice (four octaves!), 1000 Tongues feels incomplete. I’ve enjoyed plenty of concerts where, like this one, I didn’t understand a word of the foreign language lyrics, but without knowing their meaning or the source of Bang’s emotions on display, neither the music nor movement, alone or in combination, proved compelling enough to sustain interest to the end. Neither concert nor dance nor fully realized theater (which is fine — arbitrary categories can constrain art), it felt like a backing track missing lead guitar or vocals, or like a beautiful frame surrounding an unfinished canvas. (I briefly wondered how it would have worked combined with Bermea’s volcanic performance of Noise in the Waters.) 

Nevertheless, so creative and evocative was this staging contrived from minimal means (lightbulb, sheer fabric curtain, cello, singer/performer, looping pedal, smoke) that I’m anticipating the finished product and the next moves from its creator Shay and her Source Material Collective, the new theater company she and other recent Cal Arts graduates (including everyone in this show except Bang) founded in Portland in 2014. The next opportunity comes next month at Portland’s Old Church, which hosts a performance of Shay’s I Should Have A Party For All The Thoughts I Didn’t Say.

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