Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Digging deep into Fertile Ground, and other adventures onstage

Portland plunges into its festival of new works, and "other" theater from "Gatsby" to "Gloria" lights the lights.

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Portland’s annual Fertile Ground festival took root in 2009 with a bright idea and a fecund metaphor. The idea was to showcase and promote the wealth of creative work for the stage being developed in the area. The metaphor was a title phrase that called to mind all sorts of notions of healthful growth and has been a boon to graphic designers, headline writers and other ancillary festival support workers ever since.

Much as the concept has proved strong and flexible, the metaphor tends not to break no matter how far it’s bent.  So, as we get ready for the harvest of Fertile Ground 2022, allow us to strain it further. 

Planted by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance (PATA), the festival was mostly the creation of its first director, Tricia Mead, who’d worked in marketing and publicity for Artists Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage. Mead’s vision, connections and savvy helped the event bloom immediately – most of the area’s largest theater companies took part, using the festival window to launch significant projects, and very soon even the smaller producers were facing the welcome problem of how to accommodate larger audiences than they’d expected. The number of shows on offer more or less doubled from year one to year two, and before long the main impediment to growth was the lack of enough places where producers could stick a stage and some seats. Most importantly, a lot of terrific shows came out of it.

Vanport Mosaic’s “SOUL’D: the economics of our Black bodies (the joy edition),” in the Fertile Ground Festival. Photo: Salim Sanchez

All of this was exciting, rewarding, fun. And in its way, it still is. But along the way, the landscape has changed, you might say. What started as something of a busy community garden has morphed over time into what might be more like a field of wildflowers.

From the start, Fertile Ground was meant to maximize creative freedom for its participants. The festival was uncurated, so there was no top-down, institutional aesthetic determining what was or wasn’t suitable. The format allowed anything from readings of works-in-progress to bare-bones developmental showings to fully-realized big-budget productions (an enormous wall of file boxes in Nancy Keystone’s Apollo at Center Stage, signifying the brutal efficiencies of the Nazi regime, remains one of the most striking stage images I’ve ever seen), so both artists and audiences could delve into the developmental process. And already by the second year, the festival sought to break down what Mead called “siloing,” the tendency of artists to stay within conventionally defined disciplines in the work they create and the audiences they target.

These approaches all have paid off in variety and inclusivity. As current festival director Nicole Lane puts it, “Fertile Ground 2022 is yet another myriad of ripe voices who have created new works spanning almost every art form — from theater, musical theater, puppetry, improv, circus and aerial arts, stop-motion animation, dance, social action and cultural commentary.” But they may have worked against the festival growing into what some early participants and observers (such as this one) hoped and expected. 

Back in 2010, writing for The Oregonian, I noted that playwright Matt Zrebski saw it as “primarily a way to make Portland into a regional hub for the development of new plays. Fertile Ground has a lot of potential to move forward and become something people around the country notice.’” 

But the dream that Fertile Ground would become something like a more loose-limbed, egalitarian alternative to the Humana Festival or other nationally influential new-play incubators began to fall away as PCS and other large theaters dropped out as producers (though they often continued to support the festival in other ways, such as providing event space), leaving the field more to smaller productions by individual writers and artists (or that festival staple, the writers consortium), often with less connection to the established year-round cycle of professional theater. And as the openness to varied performance forms encouraged sometimes interesting hybrid approaches, it also muddied the event’s identity: Instead of a theater festival or a new-play showcase, Fertile Ground is “11 days of world premiere acts of creation.” Whatever that is.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced yet more, not-so-organic change. For the second year in a row, all of the festival shows will be online presentations (though a few projects will host additional in-person performances). The practical, aesthetic, and perhaps even philosophical questions about what the digitizing of society means for the definition of theater is, of course, a larger topic than can be addressed here – not that I have any answers anyway! 

And yet…

Fertile Ground still boasts an abundance of what it was meant all along to nurture and boast – not just the hospitable ground of city and scene, but the essential seeds of the will to creation, expression, performance. 

For a bit on the 37 new works projects in the festival, peruse an excellent overview by ArtsWatcher extraordinaire Bob Hicks. For my own part, I see several exciting options just in the festival’s first week:

John Henry Whitaker in Karen Kalensky’s “Endangered Species” at Fertile Ground. Photo: JB

Old friends searching for a lost variety of apple doesn’t sound quite like an edge-of-your seat storyline, frankly. But playwright E.M. Lewis has such a strong track record (The Gun Show, Magellanica) that her Apple Hunters is intriguing. Sara Jean Accuardi, whose smart, touching The Delays was a 2019 hit for Theatre Vertigo, is another writer worth your attention, and her play Landscape has a clear hook in its late-2020 setting amid a pandemic and a presidential election. As memory serves, it was the PCS play festival JAW, not Fertile Ground, where I first encountered the work of C.S. Whitcomb, with a marvelous Death Row play called The Book of John, and became an instant fan. Here, she explores the art-making process amid troubling times in a Vietnam-era love story called White Rabbit. 

Fertile Ground often features repeats of a sort, as projects move along their developmental stages. So it is with SOUL’D: the economics of our Black body (the joy edition), which co-director Damaris Webb has been nurturing along for a couple of years now, shaping the devised piece with contributions from a talented and thoughtful cast of Black performers.

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Unlike the crew behind The Misadventures of Missy Black: A Pirate Play, I don’t find automatic allure in the notion of high-seas hijackings or the lifestyle involved. But the female swashbuckler can be a fun trope, and then there’s this group’s name, Do It For Mead Productions. Any tribute to the highly esteemed Mead Hunter, former literary manager at Portland Center Stage and theater professor at the University of Portland, is enough to win my support! 

The flattened stage

With this year’s FG remaining in a Covid-cautious virtual realm online, there’s even less of a gap than usual between stage and screen. So here are a few clips from among the bounty:

Opening

“Everybody knows that a fairytale starts out, ‘Once upon a time.’ But a truck driver’s tale starts out, ‘You ain’t gonna believe this shit!’”

So says Teri Horton, the retired truck driver whose tale involves buying a thrift-store painting as a gag gift, only to be told later that it might be a Jackson Pollock piece worth millions. That quote is from a resulting documentary Who the #%$! Is Jackson Pollock? (that title is another Horton quote, of course), but the story also forms the basis for the Stephen Sachs play Bakersfield Mist.

Michael Fisher-Welsh and Helen Raptis in “Bakersfield Mist.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

In Sachs’ telling, Horton is Maude Gutman, an unemployed bartender who makes a similar stab at getting her painting’s provenance authenticated. That process involves an East Coast art expert visiting her Bakersfield trailer home, with all the two-way class prejudice and aesthetic discordance you’d expect. Think of it, perhaps, as a sort of down-market version of Yasmina Reza’s Art. That Triangle Productions has cast Helen Raptis and the terrific but too-seldom-seen Michael Fisher-Welsh provides reason for optimism.

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Emily Cadiz and Jessica Brandes in “Honky Tonk Laundry.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

It’s a cheap pun to say that the stories of most jukebox musicals are put together by the numbers. But it’s also true. Roger Bean’s Honky Tonk Laundry – with its working-class-cliche setting (the Wishy Washy Washeteria), cheated-on/put-upon heroines, its Nashville dreams deferred, its plucky path to self-actualization, etc. – surely is no exception. But let’s face it: The story is just an excuse to contextualize and maybe even heighten the emotional contours of popular songs, in this case radio-friendly country-fried nuggets made famous by the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, and (former Oregonian) Sara Evans, plus some classics by Loretta Lynn, the unassailable Dolly Parton and others. That the arrangements for this Broadway Rose production are by Jon Newton, once one of Portland’s most comically subversive musical/theatrical provocateurs, could turn out to be a nice touch, too.

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“The Great Gatsby”: The Experience experience.

A novel as rich and renowned as The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of Jazz Age arrivistes, presents plenty of opportunity for adaptations. The “immersive-theater” approach of the Experience Theatre Project is one way to take advantage of the story’s alluring glamor and nostalgia, but adapter/director Alisa Stewart has bolder perspectives to explore than merely setting you amid the setting. For Great Gatsby’s Daisy, she switches the narrative point-of-view from that of Nick, the wealthy Jay Gatsby’s neighbor, to that of the socialite Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s longed-for former lover. Not a radical idea, that. But Stewart also advances what she calls “a dangerous but plausible theory” that potentially digs beneath the class anxieties so clear in the story: “that Jay Gatsby was passing as a white man.” 

If nothing else, there’s something intriguing about a show with production-staff credits that include both a “historical influencer” and a bartender.

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Also: Lester Purry, who starred at Portland Playhouse in a 2018 production of August Wilson’s Fences, returns to the theater in Thurgood, based on the life of the path-breaking American jurist Thurgood Marshall. And the hit rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which wears a rough glam-punk attitude over its uplifting Broadway heart, returns to Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio.

Best line I read this week

“There’s a mesmerizing and ironic artifice to Dolly Parton—a sincere and relatable duality. She’s one of those icons in whom seemingly opposing forces naturally connect: poverty and folksiness against the power of enormous success, vulnerability and tenderness against effervescent self-assuredness, a story of honesty and heartache under an image so artfully plastic it seems to turn in on itself. Her brand of iconography feels so aware of its own longing for beauty that it somehow trips over superficiality and falls back into the deepest reverence.”

Chris Dennis, at the website Guernica

Streaming

In the Before Times, one of the reliable and frequent pleasures of the Portland-area theater scene was seeing Tobias Andersen, whether as a busy and distinguished actor onstage or as a tireless supporter of everyone else’s work, in the audience for countless shows around town. A recent email from him caught us up on some news, both good and bad. The bad is that, because of a bout with cancer a couple of years ago, he’s at long last retired from the stage – though he keeps involved with theater at Nutz n Boltz Theater in Boring, as sometime-director and jack-of-all-trades. The much better news is as follows: 

“Just before the pandemic hit, I got a surprise email, titled “Out of the Blue.”  Indeed, it was. It was from Janet Allen, the artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theater.  Don’t know her, never been to Indiana. Somehow she had discovered my five character adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 that I wrote for the (long gone) Portland Repertory back in the ‘90s. To get to the point, my version of the novel opens this Friday, the 28th, in Indianapolis … The play runs through Feb. 20th and it will be streamed as well as being played live on stage.” 

Perhaps (and this is only a guess) Allen heard about Andersen’s work through Libby Appel, former artistic director at both Indiana Rep and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Andersen worked at OSF years ago. In yet another serendipitous connection, Henry Woronicz, Appel’s predecessor as OSF artistic director, is part of the cast for this latest production of Fahrenheit.

Andersen will attend the show’s opening in Indianapolis, where his long association with Fahrenheit author Ray Bradbury earns him yet more attention. “A mile away from the theater is The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies; connected to Indiana University,” he writes. “A  Dr. Jon Eller, who did run the Center, saw me in the one man play, The Illustrated Bradbury when I played it at the Rubicon in Ventura, Ca.  I had 25 years of correspondence with Ray – letters, scripts, poetry, photos, etc. – the Center has taken it all and, according to what I am told, there will be a screen where you click on and see my performance of the characters in the play.  It appears I am immortalized … or somethin’ like that.  I could get used to this.”

Closing

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria,” from Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

“(O)ne of the lifebloods of the city is a low-key hum of professional jealousy.” So says the novelist and editor Hanya Yanagihara in a recent profile in The New Yorker. In the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Gloria, nearing the end of a run in a sharp-edged production by Profile Theatre, that hum isn’t so much low-key as high-pitched. But though conversational backstabbing among the disgruntled underlings at a prestigious magazine is the focus of Act I, the play has numerous other concerns on its plate, most notably the entwined psychological and narrative contrails of violence and trauma. 

Directed by Josh Hecht, the Profile production has much to admire, including sleek scenic design by Robin Vest, and several fine performances, especially from Foss Curtis as both the mousy yet desperate title character and a self-centered superior on the editorial food chain.

CovidWatch

Before one makes a great leap it is only natural sometimes to hesitate a little, to delay. So it has been with The Great Leap at Portland Center Stage. The Lauren Yee play, being co-produced here with Artists Rep, was scheduled to open last Friday night on the Armory’s mainstage. But a rash of positive Covid tests caused the theaters to cancel the first several performances.  

Sharon Martell, PCS’ director of marketing and communications, said that a half-dozen members of the show’s production staff had tested positive and that the theater’s Equity union contract requires cancellation in the event of five or more positive results. None of the show’s four cast members have tested positive, according to Martell. On Tuesday, Martell confirmed that the results of subsequent testing according to the contracts protocols meant the production was cleared for public performances beginning on Wednesday the 26th, the earliest date allowed under the circumstances. 

Second-hand news

Worth a theater fan’s attention in the Jan. 24 edition of The New Yorker is an article by Blair McClendon about the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and “the puzzling paradox of how a Black lesbian Communist became a darling of mainstream America.”

Of Hansberry’s breakthrough success with the 1959 premiere of A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a Black woman to appear on Broadway, McClendon writes, “On its surface, ‘Raisin’ was the perfect play for its time….But Hansberry was more radical than her broad appeal would suggest.” McClendon goes on to examine the thematic tensions of her short life (she died of cancer at age 34) and her truncated stage ouvre, tracing “the internal conflict between Lorraine the Village radical and Lorraine the daughter of the Chicago bourgeoisie,” and in the process explicating greater depth – and greater ambivalence – in the message of A Raisin in the Sun than is often acknowledged: “She had always had what the Youngers [the family featured in the play] wanted. It did not keep the despair at bay, nor had it set the world free.”

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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