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.

Vietnam protests around America are in high gear, and the shooting of 13 students at Kent State – 4 fatally – are fresh in people’s minds. And now a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention is coming to Portland at the end of summer, 50 thousand strong, with President Nixon to give the keynote address. This many or more antiwar protesters from around the country are expected to descend on Portland. And a violent confrontation appears inevitable to McCall and his advisers. He wants to keep things peaceful: To him, violence is not the Oregon way.

An idea is floated to hold a rock concert simultaneously with the VFW convention, to draw off a major proportion of the protesters and help defuse the powderkeg. McCall is skeptical.

A “sex and drugs” event on public land?

But a group of local antiwar activists buys into the idea as an alternative venue for protest -–a peaceful protest, one that is fun – promising “to police themselves and clean up after.” No cops on concert grounds, no arrests for drugs or nudity or whatever? The idea sickens the Governor: This is public land which could be ruined – and, drugs? One of Tom’s sons is in a serious struggle with drug addiction. (Tom himself is a recovered gambling addict.) But weighed against the strong possibility of a full-scale riot destroying downtown Portland, with much injury and likely some deaths, McCall sucks in his stomach.

“What are the odds . . .

He sings in the most lovely and acutely plaintive song in the two-hour musical. McCall decides to roll the dice and go with the rock festival, something no other American governor in their right mind would have done. But this is vintage McCall. In the end, there are no serious incidents at the festival. The park is cleaned up. And in downtown Portland? No deaths, no serious injuries, the damage totaling “one broken window.”

This history-based musical comedy focuses on many sides to this complicated story: the two factions of protestors, a local and a federal cop, a member of the Portland business community, McCall’s chief aide, and Tom’s eccentric mother and struggling son. Simplifying history, yes. But in the songs? – giving all of the parties their emotional due, never selling short the complexity of this historic event. In the end, though, it is mostly Tom McCall’s story – a fitting tribute to a man who cares deeply about livability. And who, not just in his words but also through his actions, pleads with people to be “a thinker about the future.”


… AND MORE


There were other musicals in this year’s Fertile Ground. And other historical/political dramas. But nothing with quite the edgy emotional resonance of Vortex 1.

Musicals typically tend to be high on artificial spit and polish, and dramatically low regarding their reality-hit. Where genuine human emotion only seeps through the gloss in the songs. Musicals tend to be best served when dramatically structured as farce. Flat, cartoon-like characters who sarcastically comment upon your TV-mirroring emotional lives. Which is what Portland’s Mini Musical Festival does, all too slickly and well. One-idea plot-structure right out of the sitcoms.

Women’s book club as excuse to get out of the hectic house once a month, kick back, and drink – until something more serious wakes them up. Local popular country singer who can’t reach the big time because she’s felt no pain. A murderer returning from beyond the grave. A phone being one’s closest friend. A fake safe-cracker who’s never done this job before.

Only Arm, Matt Zrebski’s dystopic Orwellian vision of high school conformity, via red or blue pills, ups the sitcom ante, pushing farce to the level of the absurd. It frames the possibility for the emotion of its songs and dances to break free of your meme-cluttered, culturally conditioned mindspace, and to discourse instead with some unjaded cord of actual reality still alive somewhere inside you. But, as with the five other pieces of the Mini Festival, the song and dance numbers are so slickly orchestrated that you feel like you’ve been transported to Broadway in the 1980s (or 1950s) – out of touch with anything other than this exuberant, entertainment-framed and fantasmic ir-reality. Portland in 2020 is visually or emotionally nowhere to be found.

***

You didn’t make it to other musicals in the larger Festival. But you did get to Songs from the Stage, part of LineStorm’s noontime readings at Chapel Theatre. E.M. Lewis is not only one of Oregon’s very best playwrights, she collaborates with musicians to create contemporary operas. An Oregon farm girl herself, she can empathize with a Nebraska farmer about to lose everything.

I don’t want the sun to rise . . . and see everything lost.”

The farmer sings, contemplating suicide the night before foreclosure. Snipped from the context of the actual opera production, it is hard to know if the deep emotion of the song lives up to the context it emerges from. But here, you can sense the magic of musical theater when drama and song do merge.

Holly Yurth Richards writes more traditional musical comedies – say, about biblical Noah’s role in Irish history, or a seeker’s creative self-realization in New York City.

“The me that you always wanted me to be.”

The protagonist sings this from Pop Goes the Bubble. The songs are light in tone, witty and charming like such songs are supposed to be. But emotionally focused, too, and resonant with life lessons.

“You, Mr. Snuggles, and me . . .”

This innocent, very wistful number from Welcome to Zion is sung by the story’s Mormon girl-next-door, reminiscing with her childhood sweetheart who she now half-realizes is gay. You saw the workshop version (directed by Brian Shnipper) last October at Broadway Rose in Tigard. And this is “musical” as musical should be done! Serious subject, but light touch with the songs. Their words and music are allowed to sneak up on you, like good wine or good cheese – to slowly awaken something in you, and emotionally seep under your skin. Deep, real-world stuff.

***

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt on the south lawn at Hyde Park, photographed by Oscar Jordan, August 1932. FDR Presidential Library & Museum / Wikimedia Commons

You also see at Fertile Ground other pieces than Vortex 1 that attempt to deal in meaningful ways with historical subjects. Case in point: The Roosevelts’ Women, by Thomas and Craig Mason with Annie Leonard. The awkward title is not a typo. Yes, the play deals with three of the women prominent in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s private life and public career. But recent scholarly research now suggest something startling about Eleanor Roosevelt – her very strong emotional, if not physical, attachment to at least two women in her life. Told in chronological snippets, the play is more biopic than the twin tension-wires of the two chief protagonists’ emotional journeys. It’s not a musical, and there are no songs to heighten the emotional punch. But strong bits of dialog, here and there, do bring stale history vibrantly to life.

***

Far better (and in some ways far worse) is Maria Choban and Brett Campbell’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism: a comedy. [Campbell is a senior editor at ArtsWatch and Choban is a contributing writer.] It is 1906 and a dockworkers riot is in full throttle outside London’s Cafe Royale. Three prominent members of the Fabian Society, a Socialist group dedicated to peaceful political change, are meeting to discuss the Society’s future direction. The two show-horses of the group are present – critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw and sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells _ alongside the workhorse of the group, sociological researcher Beatrice Webb. Joining them is Shaw’s former lover, the aging actress Ellen Terry.

“Ellen, I am having a very bad attack of you.”

Shaw once writes her, revealing his private face. Shaw’s public face is a different matter.

“I have no heart – I am a theater critic.”

The play is presented as a farce that borders on the absurd: When some genuine emotion is called up by character interactions, this emotion has the effect of breaking through the cartoon facade; of bringing a raw moment of history vibrantly to life. Choban and Campbell use every trick in the book to keep the production rightly off-balance, never descending into some stock formula. But utilizing a time-traveler on a bicycle, from one of Wells’ novels, who works sometimes as a Royale Cafe waiter – this and a couple of other disruption-gambits half-push the focus away from the very interesting reality the authors are unearthing for you. An earnestly won reality, which is no historical lark. Hardworking Beatrice Webb’s assistant and protege, Clement Attlee, will become the UK’s post-WWII prime minister and the philosophical father of Great Britain’s modern Labor Party. The real “time travel” in this play? It points to something groundbreakingly pertinent and historically decisive.

***

Another interesting but problematical farce is Jose’s Heroes, by Alan Alexander III, riffing on the 1960s TV comedy series Hogan’s Heroes. Trump’s presidential library, with his tweet collection, is complete now that Trump has retired after his fourth term. But economic times have changed and Mexico’s economy is booming, while that of the U.S. is sluggish. The wall on America’s southern border now keeps migrant workers in. Trying to escape back south, George (pronounced “Hor-hey,” in Spanish) is rounded up and deposited in a detention camp run by clueless ICE officials Col. Cunningham and Sgt. Brown, ever mispronouncing the Spanish names. The camp is actually run by Jose and Jamie, clandestinely for Mexican Intelligence – and to protect their operation they need to prevent George from escaping the camp.

There are sex scenes between Jose and Molly Mae, Cunningham’s secretary, Jose turning her into a double agent. Later she aids and abets a big escape operation, but also the “righteous” murder of Sgt. Brown – this being one of the problems with this lightweight message play. This was not an element of the first version of the play you heard read – a run-and-tumble farce – which Fertile Ground’s third version has mostly smoothed way out, eliminating its enjoyable absurdity, making it more “dramatic,” more about character development. Alexander mostly writes musicals, where a character’s deep “reality” reveals itself in the songs, which spoken dialog merely sets up. A farce like Jose’s Heroes is set up to be a social critique, never a serious drama. Even far snappier dialog here would still come off as TV-style banter. If you live in cartoonville, you go with it – while simultaneously chipping away (like a prisoner building an escape tunnel) and undercutting this flat reality.

***

A good example of this inversion process at work is Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Matthew Miller – like Jose’s Heroes, one of the LineStorm Playwrights noon readings at Chapel Theatre. Lady Emily Inglethorp has been poisoned to death in her bedchambers. And her houseguest, the eminent criminologist Hercule Poirot, is on the case.

“Scan the room.”

Poirot instructs his cohort (and one-time lover) Major Hastings.

“Everything matters.”

He adds. This twist-filled, century-old whodunit is too artificial for anyone to take seriously. What Miller has smartly done is to keep the characters comically cartoon-simple, speaking and behaving true to their historical period and their British upbringing, but to slip modern ideas in, between the cracks. Ideas about sex and sexual orientation, mostly, starting as mere nuance but amplifying till the level of muted humor goes entirely over the top.

When farce works, this is what happens. It pushes what characters say and do right up to the edge of absurdity while the characters continue to keep a straight face. The hypocrisy of the Victorian mindset which you – and which TV writers and viewers – have inherited? This mindset is not merely shattered. It is, in some sense, contextualized and understood. Perhaps even forgiven. And this is when some real-world emotion begins to seep through the cracks in the formula-heavy facade of this antique drawing-room drama.

***

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while a hundred-year-old period piece, is not actual history. But big history is often best handled by the playwright undercutting what you think you know about a past that is made to seem all too familiar by mass media. By your culture’s stock version of history. If it is big history, you have to push theatricality past the threshold, to something even bigger, so that the stock emotion you have been trained to feel can begin to unravel. But another way to talk meaningfully about history is to go, instead, super-small. Talk in discreet nuances about how significant historical junctures can touch and change ordinary lives.

Jason Glick and Andrea White in Bonnie Ratner’s “Blind.” Photo: Lindberg Media

This is lovingly demonstrated by the Chapel Theatre Collective production of Blind, written by Portland playwright Bonnie Ratner and directed by William Earl Ray. It is winter 1967-68 in a once Jewish-American neighborhood of New York City, now largely African-American. Harold Stein commutes from Long Island every day to run the shoe store where he clerked as youth, and later purchased. The business income bought him a suburban house and his daughter’s college education. But also an angry daughter and a wife feeling alienated and drinking too much. These are nicely handled side issues, but issues the play could almost have done without.

Loyal Jewish customers drive back down to buy shoes, as do a few black ladies of the neighborhood. But Mr. Stein (Jason Glick) won’t let in young black males for fear of being robbed, keeping the doors locked during business hours. Then Mrs. True (Andrea White) knocks on the door, inviting Mr. Stein to walk around the neighborhood with her, to talk to some people.

“Why?”

He wonders.

“You’re part of the neighborhood.”

She explains, which catches him off-guard. He defers the invitation, but something starts itching in his brain. And Mrs. True comes by again, to talk. A certain respect begins to develop, and he opens up a bit. He writes things in spare moments: poetry. Things happen, and Mrs. True’s son, Jimmy, comes to work for Mr. Stein. More things happen, at first pulling them apart but then pulling them closer together on the rebound.

Okay. This is the setup for an interracial love-story, right?

Actually, no – though it does lurch in this direction a couple times.

“Call me Millie. Can I call you Harold?”

Nope. Something more interesting than a developing love affair is going on here. Millie talks about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. About it being no good that people live in enclaves, hostile toward those in other enclaves.

“Eye for an eye makes everybody blind.”

She quotes Dr. King. Nonviolent protest and racial integration are not just political platforms. They are practical, everyday things a good person can do. They are about people living together, with respect. They are about empathy and listening, and about taking a chance. When Millie first knocks on Harold’s shoe-store door, she is heeding Dr. King’s call. She is proactively trying to build bridges. To plant a seed in another person, then come back to water it, so the seed can ripen. To be a healer; to open another person’s eyes.

“Eye for an eye makes everybody blind.”

This play is about Martin Luther King Jr. in microcosm – King’s legacy. Few people in 1967-68 were actually changed overnight like the fictional character Harold was. But over the next 20 years, a large swatch of the American people were in fact changed, like Harold was. Hate and fear turned – if not to love, at least to a respect. Bridges built; eyes opened.

***

Here at Fertile Ground you have a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in Blind and of Tom McCall in Vortex 1 not as heroes but as something more modest, and also as something more powerful. “Heroes” throughout history have solved social problems through bigger-than-life acts. But these acts always involve violence. Violence – against supposedly-evil “others.” Violence is a hero’s stock in trade.

King and McCall instead are more like secular versions of biblical prophets, encouraging you to think differently than you currently do; to live differently. Like the prophet Isaiah, they are asking you to consider the poor, the helpless, the dispossessed: God commanding you to love your neighbor. That the land you live on is given to you on a longterm lease from God, and your job to keep it livable for generations to come. Concepts of behavior you don’t need to be religious to buy into.

Simply: Live peacefully and respectfully, because you have been blessed. Here in Oregon, as Tom McCall might say . . .

“You live in God’s country.”

And that gives you an obligation . . .

“To be a thinker about the future.”

To feel and to think deeply.

***

(Coming soon in Fertile Ground 2: E.M. Lewis’s Dorothy’s Dictionary and related works.)


Jae Carlsson is a novelist, playwright, religious-historian, and longtime visual arts, dance, and film critic. Author of three Juvenant Creature ebook samplers, two potboiler mystery-thrillers set in Spokane (Shallow Grave in the Dishman Hills and Schemer – the Cedarcrest Double Homicide), plus the just-published paperbound and rather-dark theater/fiction experiment, Kevie Walbeck.

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