Fertile Ground 2: ‘Dorothy’s Dictionary,’ etc.

In E.M. Lewis's newest play and several others at Portland's new-works festival, the key question is "talking it thru."

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

Talking it Thru

Is there anything unique and compelling about the Portland theater scene? Or is it just a colonial outpost of the New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles theater scene?

Are the stageworks sprouting from Portland stages invasive, non-native species? Foreign species of theater, transplanted to Oregon soil but emotionally native to some faraway physical and social ecology? Evidencing a very different affective ecology from how most Oregonians actually feel about things?

Or is it just the case that . . . things today are so entirely globalized that no emotionally unique ecosystems any longer exist? That “an Oregon voice” is 100-percent irrelevant?

***

E.M. Lewis’s “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” from LineStorm Playwrights. Design: Holly Richards

Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis (directed by Dan Kitrosser) is a remarkably tight and precise two-person play. You’ve seen it read at Lakewood Center in Lake Oswego last May, and now again during LineStorm’s noon readings at Fertile Ground.

Zan hesitates to enter Dorothy’s room.

Place smells of bleach and sick people.

But the judge made it plain. It was either this “community service” gig or juvie. Juvenile detention. Zan (Jordan Clark) crosses the threshold.

He had assaulted someone. That is why he is here. Dorothy (Ayanna Berkshire) has to wonder why.

Don’t like to talk about it.

Zan holds his peace. With most plays, this would be a hook – something you find out about much later in the story. But Dorothy’s Dictionary is not “most plays.” You never really do find out. This is not playwright Lewis’s gambit here.

Dorothy is a feisty librarian, laid up in the hospital while being treated for some undisclosed medical condition. The medication is hard on her eyes, so Zan’s after-school job is to read to her. Read from a whole range of books stacked in her room. From fiction to travel to gardening – most of which she’s read before. This confuses Zan.

Books give you a taste.

Dorothy explains.

A taste which you sometimes want to go back and revisit.

The beauty of words. Their flavor and color.

Zan opens up the book on top, puzzling over it.

This ain’t English.

He emotes. He holds up Shakespeare’s Hamlet to show her. He picks instead Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to read to Dorothy. Why pick that one?

Because it’s short.

About a man on a boat. Zan admits he has never been to the ocean. Never been anywhere.

When Zan comes across a word he doesn’t know, Dorothy refuses to tell him what it means. Her voice is testy.

Look it up.

She insists, handing him her dictionary. Wanting Zan to find out for himself what things mean. Which is where Zan’s emotional education with Dorothy begins. And where Dorothy’s emotional journey to the otherside begins as well.

This two-person journey is told in 13 chapters, with lighting time-shifts between them. And lighting shifts when one of the characters steps out of time and talks directly to the audience about the whys and wherefores about how they were feeling at that particular juncture in time. Zan does this recollective-type talking during the early chapters, not Dorothy. Your insight into this unusual but developing relationship begins entirely through Zan’s eyes.

Things change in Chapter 7. 

When I find out – I’m not getting any better.

Dorothy says, her first time talking specifically to the audience.

Zan stays late into the evening; one day when Dorothy dozes off into a delirium sleep:

You’re supposed to sign my paper after every session. It’s for the judge. 

He tells her when she comes out of it – Dorothy wondering why Zan is still at the hospital when it is dark outside. 

You scared me.

He tells her in a later chapter, this time more honestly – after an increasingly frail Dorothy has fallen, getting out of bed. Dorothy’s conversations with him and the reading of her books have expanded Zan’s world – expanded it out from the tiny parochial world of not just Zan’s immediate social environment but also the sectarian world inside his head. Expanding Zan’s awareness across oceans to the entire planet. To the possibilities of his life. And Zan does not want this journey to stop.

The heart-monitor continues to beep away.

I’m here . . . I’m here . . . I’m here.

The beeping seems to assert. Which reassures Dorothy. But the writing is on the wall. One day she hands Zan her dictionary, this time for keeps. Dorothy’s dictionary is not just filled with English words, printed in small typeface. The book’s endpages and margins are filled with scribbled-in foreign words. Penned in Dorothy’s precise and very legible hand. Words from around the world – Sanskrit words, Czech words, Polynesian words – and what each means. They are meant to be pronounced aloud – for the taste of them on your tongue.

The Bantu word “booti booti.” Listen to the sound of it.

What does it mean?

To shed clothing and move uninhibitedly.

And together Zan and Dorothy taste more and more words from across the vast seas.

The way Dorothy’s Dictionary sets itself up, it could have become a run-of-the-mill melodrama. Instead it shrewdly takes a very different, very original road. The plot structure by and large does not involve a pair of entwined psychological journeys. There are no conflicting head-space journeys here. The focus instead is on the nuances of the relationship. The two roads traveled are instead existential. How to meaningfully live one’s life, in the case of Zan. How to deal with life’s finality, in the case of Dorothy.

Zero “psychological conflict” here. You never know why Zan hit someone. Zero melodrama. You never know what Dorothy is dying of.

The point is – how two people enter each other’s worlds. There is no heroic or ironic or tragic protagonist present here. Just two people dialoguing with each other. And the new realities which sprout from that. Talking this budding relationship through. Through all the way to the other side.

Talking it thru.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Dorothy’s Dictionary.” Photo: Russell J Young

***

In Fertile Ground 2020, you see 27 shows. With the three shorts-showcases you catch, this totals up as 43 unique works. About one-third of the total festival, near to the maximum of what it is possible to see. And here is what is remarkable. You don’t see a single actor twice. The quality of the acting throughout the festival is uniformly consistent – powerful and first-rate. Right on the mark as regards the needs of the particular production each actor appears in. A remarkably large talent pool in this city.

But the question I am raising is this: Is it enough that Portland is rich in theater talent? Enough that this region has a huge body of very talented actors as well as directors and other production individuals?

***

Change Order by Adrienne Flagg & Clayton Pearce (directed by Jane Fellows) is, scene for scene, the most solid piece of conventional theater you see in the Festival.

Sander is dead. And now co-owning the house Sander never finished remodeling are Will, Sander’s only child, and Sander’s second wife, Kim. Kim works in a flower shop, and is independent-minded and outspoken in a very private way. Will is a baker, and he and Megan – a paralegal and Will’s live-in girlfriend – share an apartment with a third party. Which is a situation Megan wants to change. Should Sander’s house be sold? Can Kim be talked into it?

This is a melodramatic setup if there ever was one. But, fortuitously, it only half-travels down such a road. In this play, Sander still haunts the house – literally. He talks less to the audience than to the void.

I am Ukrainian Jew . . . I am 20 years old when I come to – Rip City.

Will is fond of his stepmother but avoids visiting Kim, here at the house in which he grew up, not wanting to break in on Kim’s grief or aggravate his own. Sander’s continued presence in the house keeps either party from moving ahead. And Megan realizes it is up to her to move things forward.

I fight for Will because he won’t fight for himself.

She, at one juncture, explains in frustration.

What brings this play down to reality – getting it beyond the melodramatic murk stewing-up inside each of the protagonists’ heads – is economics. The three sit down and talk house-prices, realtor fees, mortgages, and such. Talk money. And surprisingly, this is not boring. It brings the hazy nowhere-land of their three psyches down to earth, to actual lived existence. Conflicting desires no longer become the issue. Talking hard economic facts begins to put the three of them on a credible path. A path regarding where each of them wants to take their lives. This ultimately overcomes nagging psychological betrayals. The coming to terms with bottom-line economic facts is the point at which the three individuals meaningfully begin to talk things through.

Talk it thru. So each can begin to build an actual (non-melodramatic) future for themselves. 

***

Sitting Shiva by Joshua Metzger (directed by Dawn Bonder) is a high-octane stage drama, featuring three “grieving” brothers – with traditional Jewish torn shirt, canvas shoes – at the week-long wake for their deceased father.

I miss him.

One of the brothers emotes, self-absorbed in the loss of an anchor in his life.

We all do.

Reminds another of the brothers.

Melodrama unfolds as the brothers talk their past; old recriminations festering to the surface. Mark, the oldest, is a doctor – and a religiously observant Jew. David and Henry are secular. David, a successful investment banker – but having money problems due to divorce and alimony. Mark has a wife and children but has constant trouble holding a job; his sex life has been negatively affected by these failures to provide for his family. As the melodrama heightens, the acidic atmosphere commences to peel away the passionate surface of their collective righteous posturings, revealing closeted secrets.

Okay, melodrama and more melodrama. But this week-long, three-person journey is saved – for the play’s audience, anyway – when (as with Change Order) the emotion-heavy talk gets down to brass tacks. Bare, unfiltered economics: How the father’s legal will is to be parceled out.

Here the audience really begins to see what each of the brothers is made of. And for the first time in the play, this dispensation of the old man’s will begins to provide a candid, unfiltered portrait of their father before he died – unclouded by the wake’s sanctimonious cant. The earlier stock emotions? Here they refocus, and turn stone-cold real. Not only saving the play from its cliche structure, but managing to . . . talk hard truths about existence. Talk about “leaving a legacy behind” – in the largest sense of the word.

***

For 37 years you had been heavily engaged in Seattle’s once-powerful art scene. Regarding stage productions, for most of that time dance in Seattle had been decidedly superior to theater in Seattle. Despite the huge and very professional body of acting and directing talent there. Why was this the case?

In the late 1970s, a plenitude of young dancers flooded into Seattle, enriching its small provincial dance scene. Till then, the base-level joy of seeing dance productions resided in the kind of emotion radiating out from talented dancers executing a piece. Not from the choreography itself. “Original” local choreography tended to be music-propelled and largely imitative of the style of dance pieces produced elsewhere and everywhere. But in 1980, something vitally changed.

Starting with Pat Graney and Llory Wilson, 1980-82, the emotion garnered from a dance piece stopped being primarily invested in the dancers – not in the music playing behind them, not in the dancers’ evocative movement onstage. With Graney and Wilson and a few others, emotion in a dance piece became primarily invested instead within the full ecology of the choreography. And when Seattle’s dance scene boomed ten years later, it was Graney and Wilson from whom the young choreographers took their cue. Seattle’s dance scene is still, to this day, a very original and unique scene. It has a “Seattle look” to it.

The theater scene in Seattle back then? It was an actors’ theater. This is where the emotional investment remained – emotion primarily drawn from each actor’s onstage evocation of “character.” Plays produced in Seattle? High-profile stuff, written and initially produced in New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles, yes. But even with the most original of foreign material, actor-centered emotion tends to treat such material melodramatically. This is where Seattle theater’s audience interest principally resided – with audience members identifying with the psychic traumas of the characters and the evolving conflict between one character and another. Melodrama. At the turn of the century, this was the primary audience-hook when attending Seattle theater.

Can this process go down a different road – now, in Portland?

***

Andrea Stolowitz, author of “Recent Unsettling Events.”

Recent Unsettling Events by Andrea Stolowitz (directed by Bobby Bermea) is a prize-winning and pretty high-caliber topical melodrama. A bland on-campus protest, approved by the college administration, is hijacked by the left-wing organizer’s girlfriend. She orchestrates blocking the entrance to the critical-theory-based “Western Civ” class, trapping the female professor inside. In the following days, the protesters enter the classroom and proceed to loudly shout down her lectures. Then an abuse claim is leveled at this professor by a working-class minority student.

Her advice hurt me. It told me all the things I’m not. About my place in the structure.

This all escalates into a huge media sensation. And the college administration wants to appear “sensitive” (politically correct), while tepidly “supporting” their faculty member.

The whole point of a Western Civilization core class? It’s to teach students how to think critically.

She counters, her words falling on deaf ears – being abandoned to sink or swim on her own. The professor forgets some of her sacred “principles” – herself abandoning “the high moral ground” and instead using her intelligence to deftly and nastily push back. Winds of public opinion shift. Support for the initial “righteous” protest quickly fades.

No character comes off well in this cynical melodrama. Playwright Stolowitz tries to mitigate this by having characters intermittently talk directly to the audience. But this is all spoken in airily detached past tense, like a person being interviewed on a news magazine ten years later.

Anything ever change? . . . In the end, I have to believe it has to.

Reminiscently whines the woman protester who had started the brouhaha. This tactic of directly addressing the audience (which works so well in Dorothy’s Dictionary) here instead serves to distance you even further from the protagonists. Perhaps as authorial commentary on the formulaic, wish-fulfillment emotions witnessed here – “emotions” which these cartoon-cutout characters have been strutting and fretting upon their politically mediated stage? Self-serving memories – stock emotions – regarding their righteous posturing, back when in the clutch of history-making events? Posturing, which they attempt to paint as genuine interaction with another person.

On stage you witness nothing but a conflict, a battle of wills – every character here living entirely in the solipsistic shell of their own psyche. The characters remain civil. But push come to shove, everyone yammers and postures merely at a surface level – no one seriously attempting to talk it thru. Which is probably the point that this topical powerhouse of postmodern theater is trying to make. But this lack of genuine interaction, also, is Recent Unsettling Events’ deepest problem.

***

Rich Rubin’s “Descent from the Andes”: Love, sex, Simón Bolívar.

Descent from the Andes by Rich Rubin (directed by Roy Arauz) is a bizarre little closet drama, also set in the arena of campus politics. Larry is a young Latin American specialist hoping to get tenure. Arianna is his attractive and eager new research assistant, whose family lore claims Simón Bolívar as an ancestor. Victoria, Larry’s nurse girlfriend, is jealous. She surreptitiously obtains Arianna’s DNA – which disproves the family-lore claim. Shamed, Arianna goes to Human Resources with a bogus sex abuse accusation against Larry. Hector, a wannabe actor and the doorman in Larry’s building, always pops into scenes with his fresh perspective. In the end, he saves the day – and saves the play – by talking Arianna’s ire down. The melodrama slipping into farce.

Everything turns on the slang word “putz” – a putdown word Larry uses about a colleague whom he considers lame. “Pudz” is a word Arianna doesn’t know, asking Larry to define it for her.

An idiot, a nothing.

But, academic that he is, Larry can’t help himself. He goes on and gives Arianna the word’s etymology.

Male genitalia.

In her later HR complaint, Arianna asserts that this made her uncomfortable – playwright Rubin stealing a page here right out of David Mamet’s Oleanna script. (By intention?) Things instead end awkwardly but more or less happily, as in a TV episode of Seinfeld. Rubin is stylistically all over the map here regarding this ego-inflated peccadillo. But there is a core irony being raised. Larry and Victoria and Arianna each need to feel that their daily lives carry the same heroic weight as Bolívar’s decisive victory over the Spanish in his army’s risky “descent from the Andes.” Only Hector, in doorman uniform with movie references crowding his head, is self-mocking enough to remain emotionally down to earth. He alone is able to help the others . . . talk it all thru. (Though – sadly for the audience – this is more referred to, after the fact, than actually detailed onstage.)

***

After years of traveling 30 times a year from your home in Olympia up to Seattle and down to Portland, you move permanently to Portland in 2012. Seattle’s visual art scene was then dying and its theater scene had never woken up. Emotional investment within theater audience members came not from the larger emotion generated out of the full ecology of the staged play, and not from the actual thread which subtly tracks a well-staged play from its beginning to its end. And certainly not from establishing a naked existential relationship between characters, capable of sprouting and growing right there on the live stage.

Stage works seen in Seattle were by and large an invasive species. But thinking in original ways -–about what emotionally transpires upon the theatrical stage? This happened mostly outside Seattle’s mainstages. Happened instead, almost entirely in the scripts by a few talented rebels like Yussef El Guindi (who would leave Seattle for greener pastures) or John Longenbaugh (who has recently transplanted to Portland).

Portland in 2020 has far more and far better young playwrights than Seattle had back at the turn of the century. And your present home city has the opportunity to do what Seattle never could: create something of a revolution in theater, right here – stemming upward from Oregon grassroots.

E.M. Lewis is not alone in utilizing a post-melodramatic talk it thru gambit, designed to carry her audience forward from budding to fruition across the minutes of her stagework. You have witnessed this, too, occasionally with the PDX Playwrights group – particularly the poetic history-brushed theater of Paul K. Smith and the mesmerizing journeys he takes his audience on. (Nothing in this year’s Fertile Ground by him, alas. Smith has been in New York preparing a couple of his theater works for production there.) And you have witnessed this gambit regularly with the LineStorm Playwrights group, which Lewis is a member of.

Two of the best stageworks in this year’s festival are, in truth, so modest they virtually fly under the radar. Susan Faust’s Persistent World and Sara Jean Accuardi’s And Everything Nice, both playwrights also being from the LineStorm group. With these easy-going plays you are tempted to applaud at curtain, smile as you leave the theater, then move on to the next show. But, with each of these, something has cleverly worked on you and gotten under your skin. They stick to your ribs.

Susan Faust’s “Persistent World.” Design: Will Faust

Persistent World (directed by Matt Pavik) is about the deep insecurities of Oscar, the adopted son of a now single mom, LeeAnne.

I have three parents who didn’t have time for me.

He snorts. Oscar compensates for this by living in the fantasy world of online video games, making life hard for the only parent who still loves him. Fighting trolls, utilizing the magic of dragon blood, locating the hidden treasure of Nivitonia replaces the dreary life of home and school. When his father, the King, was murdered – “EgonWarrior” (Oscar’s avatar self) had to go into hiding as an infant, Oscar explains. Now grown, EgonWarrior wants to recruit cohorts to go on a “primeval quest” in search of his real mother, the banished Queen. It’s a bitter moment as LeeAnne and Oscar, now back in the real world, celebrate his “birthday.”

One person out there knows the date of my real birth day.

Oscar’s grades slip at school, but LeeAnne doesn’t ground Oscar. She doubles down and goes to work on him, trespassing corners of his inner privacy. Which nudges Oscar, too, to attempt one real-world interpersonal risk at school – to achieve a particular goal in his fantasy world. He befriends the maybe-lesbian Tish (“ProudParadox” in the gaming world). And through this trespass, through this uneasy give-and-take, Oscar begins to realize for himself that people need other people – as comrades. Not as mute followers. That genuine relationships are not heroic in nature, but a contract involving an ever-ongoing process of emotional bartering. Of meaningful interpersonal give and take. So that Oscar begins to heal himself. Not by rejecting his fantasy world. But by, instead, bringing the rules of that world more into line with the newly discovered rules of his everyday world. A world, painted for you by playwright Faust, where the real life-risks, which you take, occur not during (psychic) sword-fights with villains out to get you. But rather, from opening up a tad in order to engage another person, and to – talk it thru with them.

***

And Everything Nice (directed by Tamara Carroll). Here, four women plus Gloria, a sick and noisy infant, are shut in together during a fluke snowstorm west of the Cascades. And everything is not sugar and spice. All the other kids have been retrieved by a parent from this rural daycare center. Holding down the fort till Gloria’s troubled parents show up are Amelia and Noreen. Amelia cancels her date with Skye. Noreen would just as soon sit, sipping tea, and get in some quality time with Amelia than return home to her own tempestuous and demanding family. The workaday demands of the daycare facility seem to leave these coworkers scant time for casual conversation.

Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando?

Noreen wonders aloud – thinking of Guys and Dolls, regarding Amelia’s mysterious beau. Breaking in upon this tranquility are Kimberly, owner of this large house and of the daycare situated within it. She arrives safely through the storm with her daughter Dee in tow, Dee returning “from college.” From the moment they enter, Kimberly swings back and forth, emotionally, from being overbearing to being overwrought. Dee is brittle and sarcastic.

A worry tree. Touch it before entering the house. 

Someone gestures out the window, wistfully.

Leave your worries outside before you go in.

Too late for that. Gloria is crying, and the calls to her parents go directly to voicemail. The snow piles up outside, seeming to close in these four adults all the more. The once-genial atmosphere indoors is turning acrid.

And the doorbell rings.

Gloria’s father. Finally!

Nope. Amelia is aghast, answering the door.

You can’t be here.

She tells Skye, in exasperation.

This is where I work!

Skye is handsome like Brando and boyish like Sinatra. But Skye is a woman. 

You keep breaking our dates.

Skye rationalizes – regarding this ambush. But the presence of this interloper begins to nudge other things out of the closet. Dee is actually returning from rehab, not college. And Kimberly mistakenly believes Dee is already backsliding.

And with all the comings and goings in order to take care of still-sick Gloria, Skye hangs tough – chipper and disinterested. Through Noreen’s smiles, Amelia begins to realize this situation is anything but the disaster she expected it to be. Then as Kimberly and Dee snarl, talking at each other but never really listening to each other, Skye – the outsider – tosses out an observation, something totally obvious to her.

Kimberly. Dee just wants to be seen.

Seen not as a projection of a mother’s own psychic frustrations. But, rather as an independent entity, with needs and desires of her own.

Sometimes this is what it takes. An offhand remark at precisely the right moment. Like the snap of the fingers which causes an avalanche. This quip is all that’s necessary – to talk it thru . . . Kimberly’s stiff and self-absorbed emotional facade cracks. The storm breaks. Mother looks hard and long at her daughter – and they hug . . . The doorbell rings.

The End.

***

(Coming soon in Fertile Ground 3: Eleanor O’Brien’s How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman 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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