DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

So, next question: Where the heck is that??

Much as the festival presents names that even regular theatergoers might not know, so too will it take you to new places for the performances. In addition to familiar spaces such as the Brunish Theater, the Shoebox, Milagro, CoHo and so on, the venue list includes Orchards of 82 Community Space, Faith on the Hill Fellowship Hall and someplace called simply the Riveter.
I asked Lane if the area’s much-discussed issues with performance spaces (recently addressed in an ArtsWatch piece by Brian Libby) was becoming a big problem for festival producers. She said that the festival makes a point to remind producers that having the right place to perform is as important as having the right work to perform. And if the situation produces some anxiety, it also results in resourcefulness.

“It’s amazing,” she said, “that when we’re in this space crunch that there were 43 different spaces available.”

Fertile Ground offers artists a chance to explore their passions. And in the case of Eleanor O’Brien’s How to Really, Really? REALLY! Love a Woman, she really means passion. Photo: Shiah Lints.

Great. So, the festival is about bringing the creativity of all these people and places and ideas out into the open. But what is all this stuff?? What is all the creativity about?

“I think some of the main themes you’ll see this year are shows about the artists’ lived experience and shows that in some way or another are about social action. There are a lot of artists out there trying to be louder, trying to have an artistic response to what feels like the culture being muted.”

What speaks loudly — and appealingly — to you is for you to decide. With so much to discover, I’ll have my ear to the (Fertile) ground to try to find new favorites, but for now here are a few of the shows I know I’m excited to see:

Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (A Romance) — Monsters both frighten and fascinate, and so does that monstrous title! But director Philip Cuomo and his CoHo Clown Cohort have been creating all sorts of unlikely and inspired amalgams in the past few years, experimenting with what the tools of clown comedy can do in contact with classic stories and themes. This time, Mary Shelley and Abbott & Costello get tangled in classical Romanticism.

Portland’s Mini Musical FestivalMusicals are devilishly hard enough to write when you have three hours of stage time to use; it’s never enough. Yet somehow the hellish constriction of a 15-minute time limit seems to work wonders. What you get are mostly exercises in form, of course, but the wit and creativity of this annual festival feature  (produced and curated by John Oules) makes it a good bet for delight.

Recent Unsettling Events — Not to be confused with Recent Tragic Events (the Craig Wright play that was an early hit for Third Rail Rep years ago). This one’s by the justly acclaimed Portland playwright Andrea Stolowitz, and it’s added to that acclaim as the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s 2020 New Play Winner. Her subject this time is academia and the intensifying kerfuffles over identity politics and free speech. The scrupulously incisive director (and expert ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea directs a staged reading.

Malia Tippets and Leif Norby star in the musical Vortex 1, a one-night workshop presentation in the Fertile Ground festival.

Vortex I The staged reading of this musical in last year’s festival was a triumph — and that was only the first act. Back this time with a full draft, librettist/lyricist Sue Mach and composer Bill Wadhams immerse us in the heady days of 1970 counter-culture activism, Oregon style. It’s the true story of anti-war protesters, a nervous political establishment and an ingenious peacekeeping compromise. Last year, the writing was engaging, the music was hot and there were a host of terrific performances. But the standout of them all was Leif Norby, wonderfully in tune and in character, as Gov. Tom McCall. 

Opening

The director Samantha Van Der Merwe, with her company Shaking the Tree, has excelled with children’s theater, piercing political dramas, creatively adapted classics and various other points on the programming spectrum, but she’s made her mark most distinctively with shows such as The Tripping Point and __the Wolf, productions that boldly blended aspects of performance and installation. It appears that she’s exploring some variation on that hybrid format again with A Banquet, a collaboration with the playwright Sara Jean Accuardi. The brief description on the company website is elliptical at best (“An underworld descent. A banquet for the dead. Tethered ghosts. A question for our times.”) yet — considering Van Der Merwe’s track record —  tantalizing.

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Much as CoHo Productions does each summer, here in the depth of winter Bag & Baggage turns to a selection of solo performances, presumably to both provide opportunity to a diversity of artistic voices and to add a dash of variety to the programming slate. SOLO Fest 2020 features four works divided into two programs, each shown twice over the course of three days. Writer/performers Jenny Newbry, Warren McPherson, Joaquin Lopez, and Victoria Alvarez-Chacon deliver stories of growing up, coming out and flying high.

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In an earlier era of Portland theater — sometime back before that day we thought our computers might all crash at the same time and civilization would end — I wasn’t really paying attention. Not to theater, anyway; I was a music critic in those days. But even I was aware of some of the big names on the scene, popular actors such as Wendy Westerwelle and Jay Randall Horenstein. And here they are again, those two (along with Alex Fox) in Life According to Morty and Ruth. The play is credited simply to “Donnie,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not that one from the Osmond Family, but rather Triangle Productions’ Don Horn. In any case, tighten your Borscht Belt for a joke-stuff, throwback show-biz comedy.

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Stumptown Stages presents the popular musical Mamma Mia! Ridiculous plot about the wonders of love and the mysteries of paternity. Crafty ear-candy songs by the pop group ABBA. Irresistible, if you can’t resist that sort of thing.

Closing

When you work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for as long as Christopher Acebo did — 14 years as associate artistic director during the leadership tenure of Bill Rauch — you get used to longer timelines; even the shorter-run shows are up for nearly five months. So it was no surprise that he remarked a few weeks ago about how quickly things were racing by with the production of Sweat he was directing for Profile Theatre. Even before it had opened it felt like it was almost over.
And here it is already, the third and final weekend of the show, a show that in some closer-to-ideal world would stick around a long time. 

For the good times: Linda Hayden and Cycerli Ash in the Profile Theatre production of Sweat. Photo: David Kinder.

In an ideal world, of course, plays such as Sweat wouldn’t exist, portraying as it does such complex and unfortunate truths about the real-deal world of corporate callousness, economic hardship and fraying social ties. 

The second of Nottage’s plays to win a Pulitzer, it premiered in a powerhouse production at OSF in 2015. Recently I’d thought about how much the broad outlines — proud, blue-collar/middle-class workers losing ground in a globalizing, deindustrializing economy; black middle managers trapped between loyalty and duty; the rising cost of everyday foibles as times get tough — are the same as those in Skeleton Crew, an excellent play by Dominique Morisseau, written about the same time as Sweat, that Artists Rep staged in 2018. But my memory had grown dull in terms of many of the plot’s particulars.

So the Profile production, staged at Imago Theatre, felt both familiar and fresh to me. There’s a richness to the individual characters, and a breadth to the view of socio-economic dynamics, in Nottage’s play that make it a deeper experience than Skeleton Crew offered. And Acebo’s cast here never let me miss even the stellar Ashland actors. Cycerli Ash and Linda Hayden give full, layered portrayals of the two central characters, longtime friends and co-workers torn apart by the changing circumstances, and there’s equally indelible work from Duffy Epstein and Victor Mack as guys who’ve each already hit versions of the brick wall the others are fast approaching.

Even on a weekend as packed with theater-watching options as this one, Sweat should be your priority.

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Usually it is a celebratory thing to laud an artistic work as “enduring” or “timeless,” but with regard to The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial — as with its theatrical predecessor Inherit the Wind — continued relevance brings regret along with enjoyment. The subject of both plays is the 1925 Tennessee Supreme Court case known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, concerning a high school teacher charged with violating a law that prohibited the teaching of human evolution. 

Of course, human evolution, in the rather loose, colloquial sense of the term, continues to be a problem. So the case stands in as a symbol of the ongoing fight for intellectual freedom, or rationality, or common sense…or evidence.

Unlike Inherit the Wind (which had an oddly inert staging a year or so ago at Lakewood), Great Tennessee…, by Peter Goodchild, aims for historical accuracy, drawing text directly from the trial transcripts. Director Tobias Andersen has been quite fired up (as he is wont to be) about this staged reading (produced by Street Scenes, presented at Portland Playhouse), in part because he’s enlisted noted local attorneys Greg Kafoury and Stephen Voorhees to read roles. Unable to vouch for the stage chops of those two, I’ll trust in the presence of the redoubtable Dave Bodin starring as Clarence Darrow.

The Flattened Stage

Far be it from me to lecture you. But this guy is happy to tell you how it’s done:

Second-hand news

Having seen credits for “intimacy director” crop up in playbills here and there in the past few years, I’ve been curious to know more about this emerging function on theater productions. How does it differ from the (presumably) related fields of fight choreography and movement direction? How are its choreographic and psychological aspects differentiated, or twinned? Apart from the widely assumed impact of the #MeToo movement, what dynamics are behind the field’s recent emergence and growth?

A recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, “The Sex Scene Evolves for the #MeToo Era,” addresses some of these questions, and others. Though the piece focuses somewhat more on film and television than on stage work, it includes a fascinating look behind the scenes of the stage hit Slave Play.

The best line(s) I read this week

“O you my fellow sufferers, you who mourn in waning hope and in ingenious fantastic yearning the loss of the beloved, let me give you at least this advice: suffer purely. Banish remorse, banish resentment and the screaming contortions of degrading jealousy. Give yourself over to immaculate pain. So, at best you will rejoin your joy with a far purer love. And at worst — you will know the secrets of the god. At best, you will be privileged to forget. At worst, you will be privileged to know.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

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

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