Fertile Ground reviews: Young bloods

Broken Planetarium's 'Atlantis' and Orphic's 'Iphigenia 3.0' show the promise of today's young Portland theater companies

At a Fertile Ground panel discussion called Building a Musical last weekend, Portland theater maven Corey Brunish, who’s produced impressive shows in Oregon and New York and beyond, noted that most Broadway shows are aimed at “well educated women in their 60s.” His observation  will come as no surprise to anyone who’s attended a Broadway show — or most other theater, in New York or elsewhere. Judging by the usual audience demographic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even Portland theater is for old people. But at two performances at this year’s Fertile Ground festival, I found young companies drawing relatively young audiences in plays that pulsed with 21st century attitude and energy. They left me optimistic for the future of theater in Portland and beyond.

After the Deluge

Set in a not so distant future in which the climate change denied by the Con-mander in Chief has now, ironically, inundated (thanks to melting polar ice) most of his properties, Atlantis takes place atop a New York skyscraper rooftop. By day, its characters watch the waters rise inch by inch, and by night participate in an early ‘60s-style Greenwich Village open mike amateur folk song showcase —providing a perfect excuse for characters to periodically burst into song. Not that operas or musicals (which, despite the subtitle, is really what this is, as it eschews traditional opera’s sung recitatives in favor of a musical’s alternating songs and dialogue) have ever needed one.

Natasha Kotey in ‘Atlantis.’ Photo: Laura Hadden.

Thankfully, the enormously entertaining show, which completed its short Fertile Ground run at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater last weekend, seldom slows to harangue us about politics; the impending flood is just an ominous if inevitable fact of life. So adaptable are these New Yorkers that, evolutionary theory be damned, they grow gills to adapt to their submerged future. It’s one of the cheerfully wacky touches that keep Atlantis’s mood light while never flinching from the gravity of its subject matter. We soon learn that this greatest of our generation’s challenges is also a metaphor for one of its other generational crises, one that unfolds through the story of one of its central characters. That’s a classic application of speculative fiction, yet there’s nothing remotely preachy or political or sentimental about this realization.

In fact, several songs (written by Laura Christina Dunn, Brigit Kelly Young, Kendy Gable, Monica Metzler a/k/a Forest Veil, Frank Mazzetti and Maggie Mascal) could be described as sharp musical comedy, and their sly, smart lyrics are one of the show’s major assets. The audience chortled and even howled through numbers like Dunn’s song about the land of lost dates, and cheered Sofia May-Cuxim’s dynamite belting out of “Hymn to the End of the World.” The other vocal performances could be charitably described as authentically scruffy indie, which suits the story but may occasionally trouble listeners who prioritize accurate pitch, range greater than a few notes, and audible lyrics over dramatic authenticity, although that last problem might be addressed by amplification in the bigger, better funded full production that I dearly hope will follow.

The cast exudes winning charm and solid chemistry, with standout dramatic performances by the two leads, Natasha Kotey (Serena) and Kevin Martin (Jack). Their relationship is really what keeps us interested in the story after the novelty wears off. It takes awhile to get cooking, though, and the script could benefit by reducing the early time devoted to introducing the various characters and instead earlier clarifying Jack’s importance to the story and stoking the main characters’ relationship.

Deftly directed by Eva Andrews, the large ensemble packs an amazing amount of tight, apparently thoroughly rehearsed action into Clinton Street Theater’s tight space, with everything running smoothly, and ingenious use of minimal materials, a movable scrim, sea creatures contrived (by designer Taylor Kamsler, costumer Chelsea Slaven-Davis and puppet master Kristen Behlings) from a little fabric and hoops. Rebekah Stiles’s choreography is as ingenious (again given limited room) and clever as Dunn’s snappy script.

Yet for all its smarts, Dunn’s story achieves an unsentimental yet genuinely moving emotional climax that somehow brings together everything that came before. Atlantis is one of the best shows I’ve seen at Fertile Ground, and one of the most promising Portland productions I’ve seen in years — theater that has powerful things to say about today’s world, generously delivered in a way that speaks to audiences of all generations. It’s the show Urinetown wanted to be. While quirkily charming Clinton Street Theater supplied a young and diverse audience, and a welcome birthplace, Atlantis’s producing company, Portland’s Broken Planetarium (which also produced Dunn’s memorable 2015 The Snow Queen) deserves whatever support it can muster for a full production in a venue that can accommodate the full scope of its ambitions.

Modern Greek

Another young Portland theater company that draws diverse audiences, Orphic is even rawer than Broken Planetarium. Devoted to “resurrect[ing] the theatre of the ancient Greeks within contemporary culture,” the company works with college students and commissions new plays. The members devoted a year and a half (and counting) to developing its first project before declaring Brian Kettler’s Iphigenia 3.0 ready for even this workshop production (seated actors reading from a script) at industrial Southeast Portland’s Shout House, a little room under a bridge overpass a couple blocks from the Willamette River.

The extended preparation shows, because although we don’t really review acting and other production elements in workshops and staged readings, already this able cast (led by Sarah McGregor as Iphigenia, Jessica Hillenbrand as chorus leader Iris, and Keith Cable as Agamemnon and others) outperforms those in most fully produced Portland plays. Most of their performances felt more like what you’d see from a polished, finished production in the city’s biggest theaters. Although founder/ artistic director Andrew Wardenaar says that no production is imminent as the company embarks on other projects, and some additional refinement is needed, Iphigenia 3.0 definitely feels out of beta and nearly ready for golden master status.

Even in intermediate form, the show’s concept — “a freewheeling, modern adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians” that also includes bits from Iphigenia in Aulis and a lot of original material — works brilliantly. Kettler really gets today’s language and bleak humor right, as in this encounter between the (ghosts of, sorta) the Greek king Agamemnon and the daughter he sacrificed to the gods in return for favorable winds for his naval fleet during a war, and was in turn stabbed to death by his wife, Clytemnestra:

IPHIGENIA: You know Mom’s gonna be pissed, anyway, you sacrificed her only daughter for God’s sake, and you think it’s cool to show up with this random 19 year old chick? Like, how do you think that made Mom feel?

AGAMEMNON: Are you forgetting? Mom murdered me!

IPHIGENIA: Oh yeah, here we go again. You always go back to the “she murdered you” thing.

You can just about see McGregor’s eye-roll.

The trio of women who constitute the chorus deliver their required exposition in snark-suffused millennial-speak, sounding like high school girls teasing each other about their periods and so on. As in the original, they also become part of the action.

Along with its contemporary language, I3’s 21st-century sensibility shows in its meta-ness (it’s commenting on the nature of the play and Greek tragedy while enacting it), ironic tone, and three alternative endings, which fits the show’s Millennial vibe — truthiness, reluctance to commit, avoidance of earnestness and the rest. It also allows the show to include a version of the original play’s contrived happy ending as well as a darker (and better) modern one; millennials are too cynical to believe in the original’s deux deus ex machina rescues.

Playwright Brian Kettler.

Kettler’s script mostly adroitly negotiates the wrenching, potentially difficult shifts between the ancient story’s tragic core and today’s comic/ironic takes, and makes it all feel natural. It could use some tightening of repeated jokes (including less, er, extended phallic humor, although that’ll probably work better in a real production when the audience doesn’t have to merely imagine the exaggerated appendages), and more development of the central character of Orestes, who remains curiously under-characterized, plagued more by moroseness (after the opening scene) than the madness you’d expect from someone who’d just offed his mom, making his final act less convincing.  (Yes, it’s a case of Orested undevelopment.)

Still, more than most attempts at updating the classics, the show retains much of the uncomfortable truth and depth of the original, while nevertheless finally (in true 21st century fashion) deflecting them with irony. While it draws a lot of its winning humor from applying today’s slasher film tropes and sardony to a dead-serious ancient tragedy, Iphigenia 3.0 has the potential to be much more, and I hope its development continues.

There’s nothing wrong with theater aimed primarily at middle-aged and older audiences, but to remain relevant and sustainable, Oregon theater also needs the attitudes, approaches and audiences of intelligent, energetic, emerging companies like Broken Planetarium and Orphic. Besides the relative youth of the creators and audiences for these two rewarding shows at either end of the production spectrum (one still under construction, the other ready for prime time), what also ties them together is the festival that nurtured them. Since 2009, Fertile Ground has provided a vital showcase and nurturing environment that’s exactly what emerging theater artists like these need at this stage in their development. Shows like these demonstrate why Fertile Ground is one of Oregon’s most valuable artistic generators, and so crucial to Oregon theater’s rejuvenation.

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