Jae Carlsson

 

Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

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Fertile Ground 3: Herstories

Looking back on Portland's new works festival: How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman, and other vulvagyric herstories

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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The Lapis Lazuli Archetype of Time

Life is a journey.

This is an archetype — embedded deep down in your genes. The idea that there is a narrative to your life. That your life has a story to tell. That there is a history there.

And extend this beyond the narrow arc of your own life. That your family, your tribe, your nation . . . has a history. That history is larger than your personal life. But it still is a journey. One line, extending from the obscure past into the unknown future. One history.

But what if your genes are wrong — that this is just a self-serving tale you tell yourself? What if time is not linear? That time works by some eerie and entirely other process?

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Jephthah’s Daughter by Katie Bennett.

This play utilizes cutting-edge biblical research in addressing one of the more perverse folktales in the Hebrew Bible (chapter 11 in the book of Judges). Jephthah rashly promises his god Yahweh a sacrifice in exchange for Yahweh’s aid in a coming battle:

I will give you as a burnt offering the first thing that emerges from my house to meet me when I return from the victory.

It is not his dog or a servant, but his cherished daughter who first runs to meet him upon his return. The Bible does not provide her with a name, but Bennett does — “Tali.” And in Bennett’s fanciful retelling, Tali is able to travel back and forth in time along “time roads,” locating Isaac, who is also set to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham. This serpentine character of time is possible because there are actually two gods of equal standing in ancient Israel — Yahweh (a sky-god) and his wife, Asherah (the earth mother).

The feminine is inscrutable . . . Masculine is so easy to understand — a straight and righteous path.

Archeologists of the ancient Middle East and linguists in ancient Hebrew over the last 40 years have largely proven this two-god situation as fact for Iron Age Israel, a situation which began sometime after 1150 BCE and began to die out 400 years later with the rise of monotheism — with the enforced worship of “one god only,” the masculine one. This is when, in Bennett’s tale, the time-roads close up and time itself becomes a straight line. It is also a time when human sacrifice by and large stops (again accurate according to recent scholarship).

What is sin?

A naive Abraham asks, as a hidden Tali mimics Yahweh’s voice. This hidden voice staying the knife in Abraham’s hand, just as the obedient patriarch is about to slay and barbecue Isaac. (Genesis, chapter 22. Interestingly, linguists point to discrepancies at this juncture in the biblical text — the insertion here of a later style of Hebrew phraseology, by an editor at some later time. A hint maybe that — in the earliest version of the biblical folktale — Abraham did in fact sacrifice his firstborn son as an act of obedience to God’s commandment?)

Katie Bennett’s “Jephtha’s Daughter”: It’s about time.

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Fertile Ground 2: ‘Dorothy’s Dictionary,’ etc.

In E.M. Lewis's newest play and several others at Portland's new-works festival, the key question is "talking it thru."

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

Talking it Thru

Is there anything unique and compelling about the Portland theater scene? Or is it just a colonial outpost of the New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles theater scene?

Are the stageworks sprouting from Portland stages invasive, non-native species? Foreign species of theater, transplanted to Oregon soil but emotionally native to some faraway physical and social ecology? Evidencing a very different affective ecology from how most Oregonians actually feel about things?

Or is it just the case that . . . things today are so entirely globalized that no emotionally unique ecosystems any longer exist? That “an Oregon voice” is 100-percent irrelevant?

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E.M. Lewis’s “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” from LineStorm Playwrights. Design: Holly Richards

Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis (directed by Dan Kitrosser) is a remarkably tight and precise two-person play. You’ve seen it read at Lakewood Center in Lake Oswego last May, and now again during LineStorm’s noon readings at Fertile Ground.

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Fertile Ground 1: ‘Vortex’ and more

A musical about Tom McCall and his rock festival is a highlight of Portland's new-works fest. The Roosevelts and MLK Jr. show up, too.

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Itch,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Dorothy’s Dictionary.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE, WITH TOM McCALL


You would like to float the idea that the Fertile Ground performance festival, which ended February 9, is not just a way of taking “the pulse of Portland” – of feeling out what is currently on the minds of its creative individuals – but that, more significantly, the festival at its best is a telescope for doing some serious thinking about the future.

It is easy to think of Oregon as always having been a hotbed of environmental concerns & the fight for “sustainability.” Unless your memory travels as far back as the 1960s.

In 1962 there is this reporter doing commentary at KGW radio & TV on issues of the day. One series, titled “Pollution in Paradise,” particularly catches the public’s attention, about the open sewer running right through Portland called the Willamette River.

The name of this reporter is Tom McCall. Four years later he is elected governor of Oregon and uses the office as a bully pulpit: to clean up the WIllamette, to make all Oregon beaches public property, to institute a “bottle bill” to clean up litter and put in place a controlled-growth land-use plan, promote energy conservation instead of more dams, and on. He famously said to tourists something like:

“Please visit Oregon. It’s a beautiful place. But then go home. Don’t move here.”

McCall is the first major state figure to talk about “sustainability,” wanting to protect the livability of your cities and towns, and farm-country and forests. He preached it so passionately and so vociferously that people listened, and it started to become part of the way that Oregonians think about life – right up till the present. Without Tom McCall, Oregon today would be a very different state.

One of McCall’s most significant but most bizarre achievements as governor was the public sponsoring of the 1970 rock festival “Vortex 1: a festival of life” at McIver Park in Estacada. One of the outstanding works at this year’s Fertile Ground festival is the musical Vortex 1, celebrating this event. Book & lyrics by Sue Mach, music by Bill Wadhams, arranged by Reece Marshburn, directed by Allen Nause, and exquisitely acted and sung by the cast of twelve, this play not merely celebrates this unusual public event but analyzes it too, with acuity and no small degree of earned emotion.

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A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.

What?

Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .

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December notes: A world apart

Reality and fantasy mingle and pull apart and mingle on a Portland stage and Portland galleries

It is late afternoon on Monday, December 9, and the TriMet bus is packed when you board it. Packed largely with 14 or 15-ish teenagers, cleancut, perhaps from a private or a special school as one or two get off at every other stop for the length of the southbound bus route. The teens jabber back and forth all around you, the whole extent of your ride. Even the busdriver seems infatuated by the joyful atmosphere, telling two jokes. One you don’t catch, but the other goes something like this:

What do you call a cat that you find at the beach at Christmas?

The kids are quick, and call out a couple possibilities. When these die by the wayside, the driver milks the moment a little longer then answers.

Sandy claws.

This answer gets a general laugh and a couple groans, then a chorus of thank-you’s to the busdriver. The kids almost immediately returning to their contrapuntal, back-and-forth jabber, which streams like vapor trails above and around you.

No, I can’t access that site on my phone anymore.

The girl in the seat next to you calls to the boy seated just behind the busdriver. The boy wonders aloud at where the problem is.

My parents changed the password.

She explains.

Set your phone’s clock back to before when they changed it.

He tells her, logically.

I tried.

She says. She’s no idiot.

They blocked that.

The boy nods, pondering.

Talk to Philip. He knows how to get around this.

He advises her.

Which Philip? Philip Teemiter? . . .

And on to other jabber, flying in from some other direction.

The teen world is a world apart from that of their parents. A cozy reality providing a natural-seeming and idyllic sense of belonging.

Laura Berger, “Find Yourself Here”/Image courtesy of Stephanie Chefas Projects

Your mother’s cousin is married to a University of Minnesota professor, Ernest Bormann—a major figure in the fields of Communication Theory and the Theory of Rhetoric (see The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream). When Sigmund Freud talks about a “fantasy,” he is talking about how the psyche talks to itself. Bormann applies this idea of fantasy instead to cohesive groups of people, who construct between them an effective group-lingua which highlights values and ideas important to them. He describes this group private-language as a symbolic convergence or a fantasy. Everyone on the same wavelength, singing the same tune.

But is this self-assured sense of belonging a luxury everyone shares in?

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