THEATER

A room with a redemptive view

Fertile Ground 2021: "The November Project," which takes place in a bathroom, has its roots in a life-turning crisis in Jessica Wallenfels' life

Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago. 

In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.


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By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”) 

Drama in the bathroom: Many Hats Collaboration’s “The November Project” at Fertile Ground.

In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic. 

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A ‘Hot Mess’ of a zombie jamboree

Fertile Ground 2021: Mark LaPierre and Ian Anderson-Priddy create a zombie comic-book musical to make your pulse rush. If you have one.

Sex! Music! Zombies! Comics! 

Do I have your attention? If I don’t, you might not have a pulse. But don’t fret: Hot Mess—a comic-book musical by Mark LaPierre (music, lyrics, and book) and Ian Anderson-Priddy (art and animation)—is the province of the undead. A combination of Scooby Doo and EDM, Hot Mess – A Zombie Musical is almost certainly unlike anything you’ve seen before. “It’s shamelessly attention-seeking,” LaPierre says with a laugh. Hot Mess premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, as a part of Fertile Ground’s online festival of new works. Festival projects remain available to stream for free through Feb. 15 on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


The musical opens on Tiffany (voiced by Erin Tamblyn) and her hair-raisingly crass boyfriend “Playya” (voiced by LaPierre) wandering a graveyard at 4 a.m. The couple are supposed to be attending a joint funeral for three of Tiffany’s friends (who died under mysterious circumstances), but it turns out Tiffany got the time wrong. In the graveyard there are unexpected run-ins with old friends, a hilarious ode-to-sex sung by Playya, and a chorus of the walking dead (who also dance). The comic-book musical feels like something that would air on Adult Swim (Aqua Teen Hunger Force comes to mind); it’s kind of alienating to watch, but nevertheless it’s campy, catchy, and downright funny. 

Comic-book zombies and a “Hot Mess.” image by Bowan Hampton and Ian Anderson-Priddy.

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The rhythm and meaning of Lilies

Fertile Ground 2021: Poet Joni Whitworth and filmmaker Hannah Piper Burns find the mythic amid the reality of Covid-19

Lilies, poet Joni Renee Whitworth tells us, contain multitudes of meaning. The flower is a mainstay in Greek and Chinese myths, as well as Easter ceremonies. It symbolizes, among other things, love, grief, femininity, and rebirth—all themes present in Whitworth’s filmed poem, Lilies, which premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 3, as a part of Fertile Ground’s online festival of new works. Festival projects remain available to stream for free through Feb. 15 on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


Written and performed by Whitworth with video and sound by Hannah Piper Burns, Lilies is like opening a time capsule from the early days of the pandemic. “It’s like writing future history,” says Whitworth, who wrote the text last spring, when the rules for pandemic engagement were still setting in. “Once it changed from, ‘we’re home for two weeks,’ to, ‘we’re going to be in this for a while,’ there was just an energetic shift” – a shift, adds Whitworth, that was in stark contrast to the beautiful spring Portland was experiencing. “Nature was just merrily carrying along, and thriving,” Whitworth says. Lilies is their chronicle of that time. 

Image from Joni Renne Whitworth “Lilies.”

The poem—which Whitworth describes as loosely autobiographical—ruminates on the tragic weight of Covid-19 as well as the pandemic’s unexpected comforts. It moves between perspectives personal and global. Lilies begins in a place of calm. Whitworth opens with the line, “Of course, / lesbians have dreamt of this for years: / sleeping in late, / reading to each other, / fretting over the cat.” Elsewhere, Whitworth hears Pacific wrens singing by their quarantine window, and remarks, “I’ve worked two jobs as long as I can remember, / I’ve never been home to hear them.” In these scenes, Whitworth’s restrained diction aids their imagery—watching Lilies, I felt cozy.

But these silver linings come at a price. Whitworth calls our new world flat and declarative, “A refrigerated truck for the bodies,” where people’s voices lack inflection. Later, they remark that “War-ravaged Syria just reported its first COVID-19 death. / We’re here. We’re here.” For Whitworth, even the “upsides” of the pandemic resist that qualification. “Is it true / that by lessening pollution, / and workplace accidents, / this industrial slowdown is / sparing lives / as well as taking them? / I can’t follow that logic to its reasonable conclusion.” 

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Tough questions, tough answers

Fertile Ground 2021: Lisa Collins' wonderfully revealing "Be Careful What You Ask For" delves into a Portland killing and issues of race

Be Careful What You Ask For opens on a sunbathed backyard deck at the home of a Portland couple. A man (Keith Cable) is reading a newspaper and drinking coffee; a woman (Vana O’Brien) enters holding an iPad. “I love our morning time together,” she says, taking her seat. The morning appears to be the most typical of Portland mornings. But this wonderful and exacting play – written by Lisa Collins, directed by Jennifer Lanier, and opening Monday, Feb. 1, in the online Fertile Ground festival of new works – isn’t content being content. Something is not well, and that something is America.


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The action of the play—essentially a conversation between a married couple—consists of a man and woman trying to articulate what is wrong with the country. The woman, Karen, wants to make the world a better place. Her husband, Jerome, wonders if the world hasn’t done enough for him. At first, the couple struggle to identify the source of their unease. Karen’s goals are vague. “Too many people are dying,” she says. “I want to help.” But she doesn’t say which people are dying, or how she might help. Jerome, meanwhile, acts like he would rather avoid the conversation altogether, and he blames his wife’s surge of altruism on her recent retirement.

About two-thirds of the way into the play, the world comes crashing into their picturesque backyard—or at least, real-life events are discussed. Karen brings up the death of Jason Erik Washington, a Black man who was killed by Portland State University officers in 2018. We realize that this—the disproportionate use of lethal violence wielded against Black Americans by police—is the direction the conversation was headed all along.

Keith Cable and Vana O’Brien in “Be Careful What You Ask For.” Photo: Lisa Collins

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Martha Bakes in Black & White

Fertile Ground 2021: Playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb take a historical spin through the first First Lady's kitchen

You’d be hard-pressed in 2021 to find a more dynamic force in Portland theater than Damaris Webb. In the past few years she’s acted, directed, collaborated, written and produced at a dizzying pace, sometimes doing all five things at once on a given work of art. Webb and Laura Lo Forti are the twin engines that propel Vanport Mosaic, a multifaceted art nonprofit that specializes in “memory activism,” preserving and holding space for voices and stories from the greater Portland area that have been marginalized if not outright suppressed. 

If that weren’t enough, a couple of years ago, Webb played the mother of a legend in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s …And In This Corner: Cassius Clay. She conceived and then created, with a host of other Black artists, Soul’d: the Economics of Our Black Bodies, Vanport Mosaic’s powerful exploration of how the exploitation of Black bodies has been integral to the American economy since its inception. Webb directed the Confrontation Theatre/Portland Playhouse co-production of Dominique Morriseau’s searing Pipeline, a heart-wrenching piece about the prison-industrial complex. When it’s noted how much of her work is built around social justice, Webb says frankly, “Well, I’m Black and I’m a woman. What else am I gonna talk about?” 


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That clarity of purpose is front and center in Vanport Mosaic’s new offering for this year’s Fertile Ground festival of new works, Martha Bakes, a brand-new piece (naturally) written by Webb’s long-time collaborator Don Wilson Glenn, directed by Webb, and starring Webb’s high school classmate, Portland stage veteran Adrienne Flagg, as none other than Martha Custis Washington. It premieres at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2\31, on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels, where it will remain available to view for free through Feb. 15. 

(Glenn has another piece in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, Troy, USA, which he co-wrote with Dmae Roberts, and which is being produced by Bag&Baggage as part of that company’s Problem Play Project. It premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.)

Playwright Don Wilson Glenn, author of “Martha Bakes” and co-author with Dmae Roberts of “Troy, USA,” both premiering online Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.

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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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Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout

The annual PDX festival of new works, which ordinarily sprawls across spaces large and small throughout the metro area, has become a garden of virtual theater

As the pandemic raged through Portland last year, Nicole Lane wondered what to do about Fertile Ground. For 11 years, the festival had been a sweeping showcase for new works (it’s best known for theater, but has also incorporated dance and film). Yet with a tradition of cramming crowds into venues across the city, it was ill-suited to a post-COVID 19 world.

That’s why Lane, who has been festival director since 2010, began to envision a virtual version of Fertile Ground. “I don’t know what bee was in my bonnet, but I saw it,” she says. “I saw the possibilities.”


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


On January 28, those possibilities will become realities. By offering a zany mix of free, prerecorded performances through February 7 (the festival features everything from an interactive baking show to a spinoff of A Christmas Carol titled Fezziwig’s Fortune) Fertile Ground 2021 seeks to sustain the festival’s rambunctious spirit—and shake up its status quo with a lineup with works from BIPOC and LBGTQ visionaries.

Myhraliza Aala’s audacious tale of the horrors of the dating game, “Oh My Dating Hell,” premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, Fertile Ground’s opening night. It’s produced by Aala Is Possible.

Fertile Ground has long been renowned for its restless rhythm. It typically spans an epic range of stories (the Fertile Ground plays that I’ve written about include a multigenerational airport drama and a screwball comedy about an alligator-ravaged hotel) and beckons audiences into performance spaces both expected (Artists Rep) and eccentric (Mother Foucault’s Bookshop). 

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