Fertile Ground 3: Herstories

Looking back on Portland's new works festival: How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman, and other vulvagyric herstories

(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.)

***

The Lapis Lazuli Archetype of Time

Life is a journey.

This is an archetype — embedded deep down in your genes. The idea that there is a narrative to your life. That your life has a story to tell. That there is a history there.

And extend this beyond the narrow arc of your own life. That your family, your tribe, your nation . . . has a history. That history is larger than your personal life. But it still is a journey. One line, extending from the obscure past into the unknown future. One history.

But what if your genes are wrong — that this is just a self-serving tale you tell yourself? What if time is not linear? That time works by some eerie and entirely other process?

***

Jephthah’s Daughter by Katie Bennett.

This play utilizes cutting-edge biblical research in addressing one of the more perverse folktales in the Hebrew Bible (chapter 11 in the book of Judges). Jephthah rashly promises his god Yahweh a sacrifice in exchange for Yahweh’s aid in a coming battle:

I will give you as a burnt offering the first thing that emerges from my house to meet me when I return from the victory.

It is not his dog or a servant, but his cherished daughter who first runs to meet him upon his return. The Bible does not provide her with a name, but Bennett does — “Tali.” And in Bennett’s fanciful retelling, Tali is able to travel back and forth in time along “time roads,” locating Isaac, who is also set to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham. This serpentine character of time is possible because there are actually two gods of equal standing in ancient Israel — Yahweh (a sky-god) and his wife, Asherah (the earth mother).

The feminine is inscrutable . . . Masculine is so easy to understand — a straight and righteous path.

Archeologists of the ancient Middle East and linguists in ancient Hebrew over the last 40 years have largely proven this two-god situation as fact for Iron Age Israel, a situation which began sometime after 1150 BCE and began to die out 400 years later with the rise of monotheism — with the enforced worship of “one god only,” the masculine one. This is when, in Bennett’s tale, the time-roads close up and time itself becomes a straight line. It is also a time when human sacrifice by and large stops (again accurate according to recent scholarship).

What is sin?

A naive Abraham asks, as a hidden Tali mimics Yahweh’s voice. This hidden voice staying the knife in Abraham’s hand, just as the obedient patriarch is about to slay and barbecue Isaac. (Genesis, chapter 22. Interestingly, linguists point to discrepancies at this juncture in the biblical text — the insertion here of a later style of Hebrew phraseology, by an editor at some later time. A hint maybe that — in the earliest version of the biblical folktale — Abraham did in fact sacrifice his firstborn son as an act of obedience to God’s commandment?)

Katie Bennett’s “Jephtha’s Daughter”: It’s about time.

Bennett also directs her play, making the best utilization you have seen of Hipbone Studio’s awkward stage-space, in this very clean, well-acted and provocative production. The would-be victims travel across time as in a fantasy novel, seeking the “why must I die” answers. Travel with increasing desperation as the door to finding these answers begins to close down upon them, and they are stuck inside the temporal “in-between.” And even though the play closes on a wistful note, you are left with a gnawing sadness.

The world did make some kind of organic sense back when it was ruled by a procreative married couple. New life is created through sex and birth. But a one god who creates, not through coitus, but instead — with his mind and with words alone? This abstract archetype defies all commonsense. But this has become the source of your modern logical view of how things transpire in time. A linear causal chain of events. This truism of western civilization has only in recent decades begun to be questioned by physicists and anthropologists. As well as by feminist scholars, who have pointed out that “history” is actually “his story” — an upward and onward journey in a penis-straight line. That there is another, more serpentine archetype of time buried in human prehistory (buried also, too often by the phallocentric presuppositions and prerogative of the male scholars who study the ancient world, and who are unable to see an alternative paradigm that is right before their eyes) . . . “her-story.”

Feminist scholar Gerda Lerner in Chapter 7 of The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) delineates (here, synopsized by biologist Edward O. Wilson) how: 

Female deities move from having had a dominating position in the oldest phases of the development of the Sumerian citystates to gradually losing that position to the male gods.

***

Okay, Portlanders . . . What is the first image that pops into your head when you see . . . ?

— a woman onstage

— alone . . . (with a few props)

— talking about sex

If the answer isn’t “Eleanor O’Brien & Dance Naked Productions,” you haven’t been living in Portland very long.

You transplanted yourself from Olympia to Portland in 2012. But for years before that, you would drive down to Portland for single art-events or for festivals like TBA or NW Filmmakers Fest or the Portland International Film Festival. In 2009 you drive down to check out this brand new festival — called “Fertile Ground.” The first thing you see at the Fest takes place somewhere in NE Portland, a showcase performance piece titled Inviting Desire. It is Dance Naked’s inaugural show. Audience is seated on couches and in comfy chairs — with maybe eight women . . . standing up . . . and talking frankly about their sexual experiences. . . . Later in the Festival, you grab a friend and come back to witness this startling but endearing event again. Dance Naked has appeared in four subsequent Fertile Grounds, this year having three separate productions on its bill at Prism House on SE Foster.

A “mini sex fest!”: works by Charla Hathaway, by Mel Moseley, and by Eleanor O’Brien. Each writer/performer is a woman in middle age, recounting a solo journey which is anything but linear and logical in nature – not anything like a hero’s phallocentric “his-story,” with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather, each performance is a journey of erotic self-discovery which sprials back upon itself, again and again and again, but with each revolution ending up always in a slightly new place. A “her-story” journey which you might label, in contrast to a phallocentric story, as vulva-gyric.

Or, more politely: as delineating a lapis lazuli archetype of time. In ancient Mesopotamia, lapis lazuli – a luminous dark-blue gemstone – is used to decorate Earth Goddess sculptures. It depicts the goddess’s vulva, the source of all life.

***

Charla Hathaway, author of “Naked at My Age.” Photo: Edis Jurcys

Naked at My Age by Charla Hathaway (directed by Eleanor O’Brien) starts with a hug.

In her midwest youth, Hathaway was a properly raised, well-behaved young lady. Which meant:

Boys go for it. Girls put on the brakes.

Good girls don’t plan sex (no protection).

But this spirals around, after a slip. So that she learns, now, to make choices:

If my panties aren’t wet, they don’t come off.

But life catches up: husband, raising of kids. And suddenly, after two decades of doing what is expected, Hathaway wakes up one morning:

Mark, I want to take a one-year break from our marriage.

She travels to Texas where a Southern gent writes her poetry. “Ode to clit.” But she reaches past monogamy and begins to self-explore. With the Body Electric workshop, she learns and begins to teach self-healing through deeply intimate sex. Teaching couples, teaching men about how to receive, about being vulnerable.

Using clothing props to illustrate her winding tale, and subtle shifts in posture — you see a young lady transforming before your eyes into an elegant middle-age woman. But a woman with a gently saucy glint in her eye and subtle sensuous corporeality to her body as she moves. Not vulgar or seductive, but confident and self-aware.

After the year of separation and kids off to college, Hathaway reconnects with her husband in a new city, San Francisco. But too much has changed. Without income but still attractive in her 40s, she becomes an “escort.”

Men pay me to slow them down.

She calls this:

Disrobing the patriarch.

And prostitution morphs into inaugurating a sex and meditation clinic — her supportive son building its website for her. And finally a move to Portland, and Eleanor O’Brien’s encouragement for Hathaway to tell her serpentine story. Each twist in the gyre, taking her further away from her Midwest upbringing, is seen as a means to even more fully:

Take back my body.

This is the emotional node driving this journey. And as such, this performance ends as it began. With a hug.

***

Mel Moseley’s “Sexology: The Musical!” Photo: Gregor Miziumski

Sexology: The Musical! by Mel Moseley (Creative Coaching by Eleanor O’Brien, Musical arrangement by Naomi Benham).

This tight, sophisticated, highly entertaining performance was first workshopped in a Dance Naked showcase a couple years ago, and is now a popular show on the Fringe Festival circuit. It traces not just Moseley’s highly emotional winding path to her own erotic self-discovery. In addition, each turn in the gyre brings her emotionally to a new problem — self definition. What name does she put to label who and what she sexually is . . . at this juncture in her life-journey?

“Monogamous.”

This definition works for a while as, just out of college, she and Jack start an experimental theater company. But look who ends up doing all the work, both at the theater and at home. With Martin (Martin 1), she knows it is never going to be monogamous with him. “Monogam-ish” — Martin is her:

“Prime Partner.”

It is a relationship of “monogamy with benefits.” And with each turn further away from monogamy in her sexual relations with others, the need for a new self-definition:

Ethical monogamy — monogam-ish — polyamorous — swinger — fuckbuddy — other.

This, she sings in her “Anthem to Ethical Monogamy.” Joni joins Martin and Mel’s monogamish relationship as “benefits.” But one day Mel realizes that Joni has become Martin’s “Primary” and that Mel herself has been downgraded to this threesome’s third wheel.

Moseley presents herself in this performance as three characters. One of her characters is the professor-like Dramaturg, at each new juncture trying to come up with the proper definition of what Mel’s sexual identity is. Second is the street-kid Footnotes, telling it real. And in-between is the often-perplexed Mel herself, who needs to pick up a guitar and write a song every time her current relationship stops working as it’s supposed to, causing her current self-definition to collapse.

Between you and me — how are we going to evolve? What are we going to do to move on through?

She sings in the most moving and eloquent moment in this evening’s performance. Years pass and Moselely learns trust, and is helped to heal from a lingering teenage trauma. But nothing ever stops and settles down with Mel. She spins away from Martin 2 as she did years earlier from Martin 1.

Dramaturg reads a quote from the Urban Dictionary, a word which is the “antonym of jealousy”:

Compersion: The feeling of vicarious joy associated with seeing one’s sexual or romantic partner having another sexual or romantic relation that brings them joy.

And this is a major turn, a major emotional breakthrough in Mel’s spinning gyre.

And now in Portland, living in a committed jealous-free “Triad” with Charity and Cliff — Mel even pushes this around a new corner, venturing solo with Brad at a sex summer camp which the triad attends. There are more definitions to find, and more telling-it-real to express – but fewer sad songs to sing — as Mel’s world continues to turn.

She shares with tonight’s audience her ironies, her spunk, and her prodigious energy — all colorfully and ruefully performed — courageously, and without shame. Explaining to you what:

My “solo poly” journey is teaching me.

***

Eleanor O’Brien tells you how to really, really love a woman. Photo: Lloyd Lemmerman

How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman by Eleanor O’Brien (creative direction by LouAnne Moldovan & Erica Jayasuria, technical assistance by Natalie Staggs & Lara Klingman).

This is a remarkable work!

O’Brien’s early works like GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies are sharp-edged and very funny, following the twists and turns of growing sexual experience much like Hathaway has done here, but with a far broader emotional range. More recent performances slide in technology and flowcharts and advice columns, adding sophisticated counter-currents to the core theme of her story — much like Moseley has perfected here — giving the events a secondary or tertiary texture. Deepening the emotion. But it has become unimaginable to you that there is any further that O’Brien can push this idiom, an idiom which she by and large invented. Her erotic self-discoveries? Once you have told all — five or six different ways from Sunday over her years in Portland — what can possibly be left to tell? 

When not running sex-positive workshops, doing a podcast, or preparing new work for the Fringe-Fest circuit (she will be taking this current piece to Edinburgh, the mother of all fringe festivals), O’Brien is helping other performers shape and fine-tune their schtick. She did not invent the “one person talking to an audience” art form. It’s been around at least since the 1970s, when Spalding Gray sits down on a chair and starts verbally Swimming to Cambodia. And a person standing up and boldly, with edgy humor, talking about sex? It’s a style of performance that has been loudly and caustically heard ever since the day Lenny Bruce first enters a nightclub.

But O’Brien has crafted a very specific kind of dialog with her audience — taking them along for the ride on a funny, vulnerable, outspoken, and cheeky journey down the rabbit hole. A rollicking rollercoaster toward — the eventual denouement of erotic self-awareness. And her phrasing? Often verbally obscene and remarkably profound at the same instant. But there is always this metric to the tenor of her voice, a backbeat that ever whispers . . .

Sex is fun.

O’Brien’s confessional exhibitionism has become an artform and a style of performance that is highly original — and unmistakably unique to her and her alone. And she has continued to refine it. So each new solo show she does? It refuses to repeat or imitate her past successes. Each time she ups the ante — takes a different tack, finds a novel vantage point to her material (her material being, first and foremost, her personal experiences, dating from some prior time in her life). And each new performance, she miraculously succeeds in pulling off this vertiginous leap into the void.

At some point she has to hit the wall and start repeating herself, right?

But this will not happen tonight!

This is not a Ted Talk.

She jests. More like a revival meeting.

Make some noise.

She tells you. And O’Brien’s audience complies, not knowing why. You are to find out only later, because this will become a religious festival of sorts. But you enter the church through the basement door. A Scotsman telling her:

Your ass is smashin’ in those plastic pants.

She proceeds to tell an anecdote here, another one there. Noting the curious things about people, and about herself. And then, there you find yourself with her:

39 and bi-curious. And facing up to my fear.

The other woman’s legs are spread before her.

And . . . What do I do?

She wonders aloud, still unsure of herself. And then it happens:

It winks at me.

The lapis lazuli — redolent with color — ready to receive O’Brien as a supplicant.

Your pussy is a portal. A port-hole to the divine.

This is what the other woman’s organ announces, speaking to her.

Holy fuck!

And after the uncanny nature of this event, O’Brien:

Sets out on a pussy pilgrimage.

You learn from her about “yoni” graffiti throughout prehistoric times. Of crowded neural pathways between the clitoris and the brain. Of dopamine and oxytocin. Of Isis and Inanna and Ishtar.

Cunnilingus is out of favor. Versus cock-worship.

She tells you. And, after much more experience giving and receiving — now becoming a true cunnilingus connoisseur — she reaffirms her first impression, now from the other side: 

When my pussy feels worshipped, the Goddess speaks.

You and everyone in the audience now are making plenty of noise, cheering when not overwhelmed with laughter. Going right with O’Brien to the very edge of hysteria . . . Things in this performance did start slow, they would build and build, then shift a gear, to build some more, and . . . And then explode!!

And in the peaceful afterglow that follows in the wave of this revival meeting, you hear the words:

Female pleasure is the antidote to patriarchy.

Unsure if spoken by O’Brien, or just welling up spontaneously into your brain. The recognition that time — is certainly not linear . . . but vulvagyric.

That time is lapis lazuli.

***

(Coming soon in Fertile Ground 4: Eve Johnstone’s Itch 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.

Comments are closed.