Bennett Campbell Ferguson

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

 

Imagining the Portland of tomorrow

Diana Burbano's audio play "The Vertical City" from Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory is a tragic and triumphant vision of a futuristic PDX

If you want to know what The Vertical City is about, ask Dr. Greta Edelman (Erica Hatfield). “We’re not made to be satisfied,” she says of humankind. “No one’s ever figured out how to decode our souls.”

If she’s right, it’s probably not in the way you think. Written by Diana Burbano, The Vertical City (a collaboration between Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory, it’s available to stream through June 30) would be a gloriously absorbing audio play if it ended before its final scene. Yet it becomes something more: a dystopian epic that is a meditation on dystopian epics.

Dystopian writing is based on a belief that confronting oppression brings us closer to liberation. But what, the play asks, if it doesn’t? What if the allure of a dystopia is (to quote New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis) that it gets audiences “grooving on the spectacle of their symbolic demise: bang, bang—we’re all dead”? What if the genre grows from a subliminal desire to be dissatisfied?

Dustin Fuentes, as Dylan, recording “The Vertical City.” Photo: Carol Ann Wohlmut

That question haunts The Vertical City, but it isn’t the only reason to listen. Led by director Dámaso Rodríguez, the production’s cast and crew have created a portrait of a post-apocalyptic Portland that overwhelms you through the precision of its sounds, the power of its performances, and the sheer emotional force of Burbano’s saga of injustice, both societal and personal.

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The Endurance of The -Ism Project

How a monologue series about race, gender, and sexual identity leapt from stage to screen

“Put your hood on so you don’t get soaked. Take your hood off so you don’t get shot.” Playwright Josie Seid spoke those words aloud to herself on a rainy day. As water fell from the sky and onto her hair, she pulled on her hood—then reconsidered.

“That process in your brain of trying to keep safe in this world that we live in as people of color—especially Black females, Black people—that’s always going,” Seid says. “I see the American flag on someone’s house and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to walk past that house?’ I see an open garage door and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to walk past there? Is something going to happen?’”

Seid’s experience is chronicled in The -Ism Project, a cinematic anthology from the multicultural production organization MediaRites that ruminates on race, gender and sexual identity in profoundly personal terms. It began as a series of monologues, but as the pandemic ravaged the planet, MediaRites shifted the project from stage to screen.

Shareen Jacobs in Josie Seid’s play “Being Me in the Current America.” Photo courtesy MediaRites

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‘Lilies’ Rising

How poet Joni Renee Whitworth transformed the pandemic experience into an award-winning experimental short film

“Of course, lesbians have dreamt of this for years: sleeping in late, reading to each other, fretting over the cat, cooking, stretching, listening to jazz in silks. No parties to attend.” Those are the first words in Lilies, an experimental short film written by poet Joni Renee Whitworth, who wanted it to communicate their passion for finding ecstasy in the midst of tragedy—even during a pandemic.

“I know a lot of people felt like joy and pleasure were not allowed last year, and they would feel kind of guilty or try to hide when something was going well,” Whitworth says. “And I’m so disheartened by that response. We can’t build a society where joy and pleasure are not allowed. Because the hard stuff will always be there, and last year was harder than most—harder than any I’ve known.”

“Lilies” in the field: Collaborators Hannah Piper Burns (left) and Joni Renee Whitworth.

Created in collaboration with Hannah Piper Burns, Lilies is a nine-minute kaleidoscope of sounds and images that coalesce into a rush of hope and anguish. It invokes Whitworth’s experience as a queer artist surviving the pandemic, while offering a sweeping meditation on post-COVID life (Whitworth’s characterization of the “choreographed veering” required to avoid other humans is one of many potent observations about current social protocols).

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Spotlighting the lives of Black Portlanders in the pandemic

The short film "See Me," the first project from Artist Rep’s DNA: Oxygen, is premiering at the Portland International Film Festival

During the climax of Artist Repertory Theatre’s new short film See Me, CL (Treasure Lunan), an agoraphobe, imagines stepping through their front door.

“CL has a glimpse of what it’s like to be outside without worrying,” says Kisha Jarrett, a writer and an executive producer on the film. “To have the pressure on you of not feeling like you can do that and then throw on a pandemic and then throw on that Black people are dying, that is a lot … when you’re trying to walk out of the door.”

Treasure Lunan in a still from the film “See Me.”

See Me, which is premiering virtually on Friday, March 5, at the Portland International Film Festival, chronicles the lives of three Black Portlanders surviving the pandemic. It’s a movie for this moment (it is haunted by the protests that swept Portland in the wake of George Floyd’s murder), but it is as personal as it is universal. The film’s characters face racism and micro-aggressions, but they also battle mundane evils like interminable Zoom meetings and burnt toast.

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Fertile Ground 2021: The Aftermath

Covid changed the game for the new-performance festival. But going virtual was a renaissance, not a retreat.

My Fertile Ground is not your Fertile Ground. That doesn’t mean I magically attended some sort of alternate-universe version of Portland’s annual festival of new works; I immersed myself in the same virtual rush of performances. Yet this year, I was intensely aware of how undefinable the festival can be.  

Seeing every project featured in Fertile Ground is all but impossible, which makes the event difficult to evaluate. If I had watched different (or more) shows, would I have thought the festival was better? Worse? With no in-person performances, it felt more important than ever to assess it as fully as possible. My job wasn’t simply to review the stories being told. I had to review whether the festival had successfully adapted to the constraints of COVID-19.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


For me, the answer is simple: yes. My favorite Fertile Ground projects of 2021 were Chosen; Fold in Gently: Recipes for Friendship and Forgiveness (and Fucking Up); Oh Myh Dating Hell; and The Prismagic Radio Hour. What made them invigorating was how they each—in epically different ways—embraced the struggles of making art in a locked-down world, transforming obstacles into creative fuel.

Chosen is a solo performance. Fold in Gently is a baking podcast. Oh Myh is a next-gen romantic comedy. Prismagic is a comedy-circus-dance extravaganza. If I learned anything from Fertile Ground this year, it’s that there wasn’t one way for the festival to work during COVID. Some artists compensated for the limits of screens by blitzing audiences with movement (Prismagic is packed with miraculous acrobatic feats), but minimalism proved equally magical.

Alissa Jessup’s “Chosen”: A singular tale of trauma and survival.

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Days of Fezziwig past

Fertile Ground 2021: An overlooked character from "A Christmas Carol" gets his close-up in "Fezziwig’s Fortune"

Fezziwig’s Fortune is technically a prequel to A Christmas Carol, but that description is both accurate and inadequate. The play – which was written by Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi and is being featured in Fertile Ground‘s 2021 online festival of new performance – is something more: an intensely moving portrait of a grieving father and the forces (supernatural and otherwise) that reveal the possibilities beyond his pain.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


In A Christmas Carol, Fezziwig is Ebenezer Scrooge’s ex-mentor—and a model for him to emulate (Charles Dickens presents him as a man who hasn’t let his cash eclipse his heart). “Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then?” Scrooge wonders. “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

The premise of Fezziwig’s Fortune is perfect and perverse: It asks what agonies might lie behind its protagonist’s ebullient exterior. By the beginning of the play, Fezziwig (James Dixon) has witnessed the death of his daughter Joy (Barbie Wu) and the worsening headaches of his wife, Catherine (Nicole Accuardi). When an apparition named Hope (Andrea White) arrives to prepare Catherine for the next life, the scope of Fezziwig’s tragic existence comes into focus: He will be forced to endure a second loss when he hasn’t even begun to recover from the first.

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Interactive cookies and scares

A baking show and an augmented reality game at the online Fertile Ground festival of new works mix viewing with performing

Interactive art has the power to blur the line between audience and performer—or even turn an audience member into a performer. That’s what happens during Fold in Gently: Recipes for Friendship and Forgiveness (and Fucking Up) and RE: Lilith Lopez, two inventive entries in this year’s Fertile Ground festival that could not have existed if the festival hadn’t gone virtual.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


Fold in Gently is a podcast-style performance that was dreamed up by Elsa Dougherty and Rachel Wells. While not all post-COVID 19 podcasts are created equal (Sir Roger Deakins may be a brilliant cinematographer, but he should stay away off the airwaves), Dougherty and Wells have cooked up something ingenious—a communal experience that is as much about memory as it is about food.

“Fold in Gently”: cookies and advice. Photo: Mantel media

Fold in Gently offers a crash course in baking chocolate chip cookies. I was relieved when I realized that I had all of the necessary ingredients (thank god I bought cornstarch!) and when I managed to avoid mangling the cookies, which had a rich, vanilla-y flavor that contrasted delectably with the semisweet chocolate chips I dumped into the batter.

In between talking you through the recipe, Dougherty and Wells interview guests about food-centric recollections. A man recalls devouring a bag of sugar cookies; a woman remembers her deceased brother’s passion for cheese potatoes. For Dougherty and Wells, food isn’t just about consumption. It’s about aging, love and rituals.

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