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DramaWatch: Rock around the Fertile Ground clock

Ready for the sprint? Portland's foremost festival of new works returns with 65 projects over 10 days April 12-21. Plus: Carol Triffle goes Neanderthal at Imago, NYC kudos for PDX, more.

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A staged reading of Timothy Krause's labor play "Bread and Roses," winner of the 2024 Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Pay Award, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 16 at Artists Repertory Theatre as part of this year's Fertile Ground Festival of new works. Image courtesy LineStorm Playwrights.
A staged reading of Timothy Krause’s labor play “Bread and Roses,” winner of the 2024 Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 16 at Artists Repertory Theatre as part of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival of new works. Image courtesy LineStorm Playwrights.

Imago Theatre’s getting a little Neanderthal action in Carol Triffle’s new play Mission Gibbons. The new-performer-every-night Nassim continues to defy theatrical norms at Portland Center Stage, where another cast is in rehearsal for an updated and soon-to-arrive Coriolanus. Portland Playhouse is tuning up for next week’s opening of the musical Passing Strange, and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yohen, in a Playhouse co-production with PassinArt, continues to draw audiences to downtown’s Brunish Theatre.

At Northwest Children’s Theatre A Year with Frog & Toad continues to hop about the stage as the company prepares to switch critters next month with Go Dog. Go!. Portland State University’s estimable opera program is getting ready to dance with The Merry Widow. Tevye the milkman is marrying off daughters at Newport’s Red Octopus Theatre in Fiddler on the Roof, and in Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is busily spinning out its 89th season.

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But this week on Oregon’s theater scene, the big news is the return of the Fertile Ground Festival of new works, a bonanza of fresh creative projects spreading across stages throughout the Portland metropolitan area for 10 days, starting Friday, April 12, and continuing through April 21. As Bobby Bermea puts it in his ArtsWatch story Six picks from Fertile Ground, “Like spring after a year-long winter of silence, the Fertile Ground Festival is born again, and the city is a better place for it.”

What’s it all about? Roughly 65 projects, all new, from comedy to drama to dance to musicals to one-acts and solo shows and even circus acts and film, in various stages of completion from staged readings to workshop productions to fully formed shows. Stages are scattered from downtown and Northeast Portland to Southeast and Milwaukie and Hillsboro and Lake Oswego and beyond. Some shows will get a single performance. Some will have several. The glue that holds it all together is that everything’s new, and the audience makes discoveries at the same time the creators do.

Tamara Carroll, Fertile Ground's new director. Photo: Jimmy Garcia
Tamara Carroll, Fertile Ground’s new director. Photo: Jimmy Garcia

In his ArtsWatch story Regrowth: Fertile Ground rises again, Brett Campbell talks about the festival’s history (it started in 2009), its switch to virtual format in the Covid years of 2021 and ’22, its hiatus year in ’23 to reconnoiter, and its new team that emerged during the year off, led by director Tamara Carroll. Campbell’s story provides an excellent starting point for discovering what the festival is and how it’s evolving.

In his Fertile Ground story linked above, Bermea talks with the creators of half a dozen festival projects, getting their views on what their projects are, why they’re doing them, and why Fertile Ground feels like the place to showcase them. The projects he chose are intriguingly varied, from a new piece by the physical-improv Portland Action Theater to Eleanor O’Brien’s sex-positive Plan V: Acts of Pleasure (Activism), Josie Seid’s new play The Alchemy of Steam, Sara Jean Accuardi’s guns-in-the-classroom play Pull, Theatre Diaspora’s collage of short plays, and Kate Mura’s The Play About My Father.

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A few others from the Fertile Ground lineup that look like intriguing bets:

Extraordinary People. Sandra de Helen’s full-length play dives into extraordinary territory, indeed: Four sets of conjoined twins met 40 years ago, and now three sets have gathered again for the funerals of the fourth set of twins. Much has changed over the years, and presumably discoveries and rediscoveries will be made. Presented by MediaRites; April 14 and 17, Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Back Door Theatre.

Geographies of Oppression: Six Stories by Mario Benedetti. Benedetti was a fiction writer and journalist living in Montevideo, Uruguay, when a military dictatorship seized power in 1973, shut down the newspaper, and began to persecute its enemies, real or imagined. Benedetti escaped, but didn’t see his friends or wife again until 1985, when constitutional government was reinstated.

“Before going to Uruguay in 2019,  Martha Gies and I read lots of Mario Benedetti,” the veteran writer and producer Melissa Marsland says. “We especially sought out the stories with dialog because they were both funny and darkly poignant. When we got back from our trip the pandemic shut things down. I still had Benedetti’s voice in my head and could see a couple of his pieces on the stage, so I set about translating and adapting two for the stage. Two turned into six because I wanted to capture a canvas of the ways that oppressive regimes wreak havoc on lives, communities and generations.” The promising cast includes, among others, Vana O’Brien, Don Alder, and Duffy Epstein. April 16 and 20, Portland Playhouse.

An Equal Voice: The Story of Votes for Women. In a national election year, theater veteran Randi Douglas’s audience-involvement play tackles a crucial aspect of democracy. “Come see how the daughter of an American history professor, Equity actress, and teacher/professional developer puts together the best of what she knows into the topic she feels is most essential right now — voting,” she says. As a play about a historic struggle for equal rights, this could be a companion piece to Timothy Krause’s Bread and Roses, in the photo at the top of this story. April 13-14 at Portland Playhouse Studio, April 18-19 at Artists Rep.

Strange Birds. There’s blood in the snow, and .. well, what? “Strange Birds is about women, and wolves, and sisters, and secrets,” the festival announcement declares. It’s the newest script from prominent Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis, author of Magellanica, The Gun Show, and Song of Extinction, among others. Here’s a chance to see what she’s got up her sleeve next. Noon April 18, Artists Rep. 

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Nancy Campbell as Joan of Arc in "Joan in the Desert." Photo courtesy Lou Wynn.
Nancy Campbell as Joan of Arc in “Joan in the Desert.” Photo courtesy Lou Wynn.

Joan in the Desert. Like Octavio Solis’s recent Quixote Nuevo at Portland Center Stage, which brought the story of Don Quixote to the contemporary Texas/Mexican border, Lou Wynn’s new play — part of PDX Playwrights’ Festival Within the Festival — modernizes the story of Joan of Arc, bringing it to the Arizona desert in 2024.

“All the actors play two or three roles, except Nancy Campbell, who plays Joan with a French accent and a 15th-century point of view,” Wynn explains. “The other roles — a bowling-alley owner, a homeless woman, a mother of two toddlers whose husband is divorcing her; and the doctor, nurse, grocery store manager, therapist, deputy, and magistrate–are very much part of the 21st century.” 5:30 p.m. April 18, Chapel Theatre, Milwaukie.

Starstruck: A Musical Journey Through Time with Judy Garland and Frances Farmer. This one could be interesting: It’s based on an actual meeting between Garland and Farmer in Indianapolis in 1967, and it has book, music, and lyrics by the talented pianist Jeffrey Michael Kauffman, who also directs a large cast of singer/actors. It’s a theatrical staged reading, giving you a chance to see and hear it while it’s still in process. Two shows April 21, Lakewood Center for the Arts, Lake Oswego.

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But the fascinating thing about Fertile Ground is, you never know quite what you’re getting into. Everything’s ambitious, everything’s untested, and sometimes the most fascinating stuff comes from people whose names you’ve never heard, on topics you never would’ve thought of. Think of it as a trip to the theatrical casino: Spread your bets around, play your hunches, figure you’ll lose a bit here and win a little more there and maybe, just maybe, hit a jackpot or two. Do yourself a favor and check out the full lineup of shows here: Your dice might land on a winner or three we haven’t even mentioned.

Also opening

Carol Triffle's "Mission Gibbons" at Imago: Sometimes a fellow just needs a man cave. Photo: Jon Farley
Carol Triffle’s “Mission Gibbons” at Imago: Sometimes a fellow just needs a man cave. Photo: Jon Farley

On Friday evening, April 12, Imago Theatre cofounder Carol Triffle opens her 20th original play — a splendid achievement by any measure, and perhaps even more so considering that through thick and thin she’s stayed steadfastly loyal to her own whimsical style of absurdist theater. There’s certainly a solid streak of absurdity in the playful animal costume shows such as ZooZoo that she and her Imago partner Jerry Mouawad produce and tour around the globe, but on their own each pushes the boundaries farther.

Each Triffle original is a fresh invention, in a sense an experiment in how far she can kick away the conventions of storytelling while still creating something that coheres, and entertains, at some emotional level. Mission Gibbons, Triffle’s newest, goes all Neanderthal on its audience. Listen in as Imago explains it all for you:

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“Is humankind moving forwards or backwards? In Carol Triffle’s strangely empowering absurdist comedy, the answer is ‘both.’ Three day-tripping hikers find their climb up Mount Plastic reoriented by a trio of Neanderthals who know a thing or two about the end of the world … and how to save it! With Irish drinking songs, ballads of man-eating bears, and even a tune in a language that you’ve never heard before, Mission Gibbons makes our impending apocalypse a little less scary, even as Triffle satirizes our ongoing consumerism, self-absorption, and need for love. Feel free to laugh ’til it hurts.”

It brings to mind, perhaps absurdly, the old comic strip Alley Oop. But then, absurdity’s the theatrical point, isn’t it?

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Sela Ellen Underwood and Maryellen Wood as Laertes and Ophelia in “Hamlet.” Photo: David Kinder / kinderpics

Meanwhile, somewhere in Denmark, a prince of a fellow named Hamlet is getting all hot and bothered about all sorts of things. It’s not exactly spilling the beans to tell you that All Does Not Go Well — or that it’s not the ending but the journey that’s kept The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at or near the top of the theatrical pyramid for more than 400 years.

Portland’s newest version of Hamlet arrives courtesy of the professional training school The Actors Conservatory, in a modern-verse adaptation by Lisa Peterson written for the group Play on Shakespeare. Michael Mendelson, leader of both The Actors Conservatory and the Portland Shakespeare Project, directs a cast of seven Conservatory students and five guest artists April 12-21 in Southeast Portland’s intimate 21ten Theatre. Student performers include Max Bernsohn in the title role, Yoonie Cho as Gertrude, Maryellen Wood as Ophelia, and Sela Underwood as Laertes. Among the guest performers are Josh Weinstein as Claudius, Grant Byington as Polonius, and Saren Nofs Snyder as Horatio.

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Also April 12-21, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals Company presents Laura Schellhardt’s ghost story The K of D: An Urban Legend at Southeast Portland’s New Expressive Works. The “K” and the “D,” as it turns out, stand for “kiss” and “death.” As the company explains it: “The truth: Moments before Charlotte’s twin brother died, he kissed her. The legend: Everything Charlotte kissed from that moment forward also died. A ghost story about a lonely girl with a lethal skill.”

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Considering that fatal twist, the 90-minute show’s recommended for ages 12 and older.

Lortel nods for Triangle’s “Gorgeous,” Shoshana Bean

Lucille Lortel Award nominees Don Horn (left) and Shoshana Bean.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in a land known as the Big Apple, a couple of Oregonians have been nominated for big awards.

Playwright Donnie (Don Horn) and Triangle Productions! snagged one of five nominations for the 2024 Lucille Lortel Awards in the category of Outstanding Solo Show, for Donnie’s Make Me Gorgeous!, which had a successful four-month Off-Broadway run that ended in March after two extensions of what had been a limited engagement. Donnie’s play, which began life at Triangle in Portland under the title Mr. Madam in 2022, centers on the life of LGBTQ+ trailblazer Kenneth Marlowe. The nomination also names original performer (and former Portland star) Wade McCollum, who also contributed some material to the script.

And Shoshana Bean, the singer and busy New York actor who grew up in Beaverton, won a Lortel nomination for Outstanding Featured Performer in a Musical for her performance in Hell’s Kitchen. Bean’s busy career has ranged from playing Elphaba in Wicked and Jenna in Waitress on Broadway to getting both Tony and Grammy nominations opposite Billy Crystal in Broadway’s Mr. Saturday Night.

The Lucille Lortel Awards are among several annual awards honoring the best work Off-Broadway, including among others the Obies, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critics Circle Awards. The Lortel ceremony, at which winners will be announced, is May 5. See the full list of nominees here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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