Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(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 has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

***

One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

But these four characters are, of course, actors on a stage with a live audience before them. During the seance, the woman who plays the medium suddenly goes off-script. She starts addressing the lead male actor by his real name, not by the name of his character. And the voice the medium is channeling is the male actor’s late father, also an actor, who – on his deathbed – induced a promise from his son that sonnyboy would not follow in his dad’s footsteps. Whoops!

A clever little twist that sets up a nice problem to resolve by play’s end. But instead there is more folderol, the medium dies and disappears, and EMTs and police arrive, and the theater doors get soldered shut by a fluke lightning blast, and more and more. Plus a bunch of meta-theater horseplay and in-jokes, before the whole mess by curtain is straightened up. Something potentially interesting (as a one-act) turns into a silly, often quite humorous, but ultimately forgettable farce.

***

Daisy Dukes Shorts Night, by writers from the PDX Playwrights group. This is a perennial sold-out favorite at the Fertile Ground festival. The plays selected, year after year, are by and large throwaway comedies. But those short plays that instead set themselves up as thrillers – some using humor, though many not – are the one-acts that perennially get under your skin.

*

Penny for Your Traumas, by Lindsey Partain. This involves a woman with her “monster” being always with her and looking over her shoulder (played by a dark-clad actor), the product of some unnamed abuse by an old boyfriend that continues to weigh her down and haunt her. This makes new dates with men and sustainable relationships physically difficult. And the emotional heaviness of this situation is felt very literally by the audience.

*

Detained, by Nancy Moss. A border guard detains an ethnic male for questioning:

Profession?

Stand-up comic. 

Tell me a joke.

The rural-raised border guard and the urban comic do not have much in common – common ground being culturally necessary in order to “get” humor. So that what at first feels like a tense relationship marked by hostility and suspicion on the part of the officer and defensiveness and anger on the part of the comic begins to morph, after a couple of “jokes” and a debriefing about how successfully they work, into one of mutual curiosity and respect:

Okay. You tell me a joke.

The comic suggests to the guard, wanting to know what he finds funny. The two diverse individuals have excavated a few inches into each other’s psyche.

*

Suicide in the Garden by Katie Bennett.

A woman sits perched high up, above her garden.

My mother died.

She explains to her sister, who wanders into the garden. Yack, yack, yack.

Get down from there.

The sister says, thinking the woman is about to jump and kill herself from grief, or from other problems in her life. The woman’s boyfriend arrives and thinks the same thought. Yack, yack, yack – talking her down from her perch. Once on solid ground, the conversations go round and round in circles, never quite connecting. Sister and boyfriend leave, and the woman climbs back up onto her high perch – to have some peace, to enjoy her garden. And presumably, to spend some uninterrupted time in order to get some perspective upon her mother’s life.

These three one-acts, which emotionally touch upon somewhat deep issues, give the showcase balance – making the five other lighter-weight one-idea plays, in combo, come off as amusing and quite clever.

***

Design by Brianna Barrett

Small Bites, a showcase of short works by the LineStorm Playwrights group. The 2019 version of this was a powerhouse, where deep emotions and gimmick ideas coexisted aplenty, often in the same short play. When a play is slow to start, frustrated audience members get up on stage. A rape is linked to the rape of the land in New Zealand. A woman nostalgic for the 1970s mounts a free-love birthday party for herself. Three Scottish female bandits are undone by a Google map. Two grandmothers awkwardly converse at their granddaughter’s graduation ceremony. Mother and daughter converse in a bar with different ideas about the golden goose before them. And another mom says her empty-nest goodbyes as she drops her daughter off at college. Only a couple of one-idea gimmicky pieces here – the rest emotionally creep up on you, burying their barbs deep inside your awareness. These are plays which, though simple in design, are nonetheless hard to shake free from.

Sadly, this was not the case with this year’s shorts program. Yes, to you, these noon and evening LineStorm performances have, otherwise, collectively been the standout highlight of the Fertile Ground 2020 festival, as these were for 2019’s fest. But Small Bites this year is LineStorm’s only weak event. All five short plays are gimmick-driven throwaway works, with no emotionally heavy-duty pieces thrown in for ballast. Which is not to say that any are “bad” per se. They are all funny or twisty or both. Comedies, though. Nothing edgy or particularly deep.

*

For Rent, by Lolly Ward. Able to afford only $800 a month for lodging, an art student is given a tour of this large old house. Nice big bedrooms. 

Sorry. That is taken . . . That one too.

And someone has rented the large, walk-in closet. And someone else, a tent in the backyard. And one of the bathrooms. But where … ? 

Entryway. Under the front stairs.

There is even enough room to set up a painting easel. The art student ponders her disappointment.

I’ll take it.

She knows there are a couple appointments right after hers. And knowing the price of lodging now in Portland . . .

*

A Temporary Funeral for Darren McDuffy, by Brianna Barrett (written prior to her departure for grad school in Los Angeles).

Darren McDuffy has departed from us.

And everyone at the ceremony speak their thoughts at the loss of this young man in an automobile accident. You picture the EMT people at the scene striving to save Darren’s life.

We had him only for a few minutes.

And … gradually you begin to realize that this is literally true. A ceremony by bored souls in Purgatory, gladly anticipating more company to enliven their gloomy eternity. But Darren McDuffy slipped away – the EMTs brought him back to life. That he was only dead, only “with” this gathering on-the-other-side, for five minutes.

Darren McDuffy has departed from us.

Good for a sad laugh or a smirky smile, nothing touches those deeper places which the longer LineStorm works in this festival have excavated for you.

*

Disaster Sessions, by Audrey Block. You miss two-thirds of this noon reading due to both the time-runover of the piece you saw just previous to it and a traffic slowdown on the normally quickest route to Chapel Theatre. But you catch the flavor of this piece in the loose turn and twist of reminiscences and admissions, which at the end comes to feel like a modest and open-ended celebration. An experimental theater piece that not just breaks the theater’s fourth wall, but wraps the audience inside the functioning of the piece.

You hate having missed the entire work, because in 2019’s noon readings, Block presented a startlingly edgy piece called 38 Minutes. At a vacation hotel in Hawaii, guests are awakened in the night – a “missile alert” warning has gone up. Presumably a North Korean nuclear device, heading straight for Hawaii. Can U.S. Air Force planes shoot it down? Is it a false alarm? Is the missile not armed or a dud? Block uses this critical situation and the anxiety around it as the overarching, shudder-worthy context for three short plays. The first involves a different kind of a threat a couple is trying to deal with, a legal one. The second involves an asthmatic, high-maintenance child and whether the stepdad would rather live in Hong Kong than in America with wife and child. And third, a union-worker and temp contract-worker get into it, the heavy talking corkscrewing into the idea that the Tiger Shark is a solitary hunter. All this concludes by a large blast of light at curtain (nuclear explosion or sunrise?).

This ominous backdrop produces a constant counterweight to the conversation each set of characters engages in during the three short plays – giving these plays instant depth, regardless of how shallow or deep the closet drama of each mini-play becomes. This form of counterpoint is one type of device for bringing heft to short plays, pushing events to the cusp of the absurd – invoking a heft equal to that of strong full-length plays. It also makes these anecdotal mini-plays particularly memorable.

Another device for generating theatrical heft is to build a strong but highly tangled narrative line. A discontinuous narrative of micro-stories, with bits of detail looping back through previous details. Limited to one spatial location, as in Sherwood Anderson’s famous story collection Winesburg, Ohio, time collapses and flattens. Past moments flicker back to life in the present, and present events reshape how the past is recalled.

*

Hannah, and Other Stories, by Dan Kitrosser (directed by Kristin Skye Hoffmann). This hour-length play contains nine micro-stories, all taking place in Jenkintown. Things begin – if “begin” is the right word – with a woman telephoning Marvin’s pet store.

Marvin. The fish is dead.

I’m not Marvin. I’m just a clerk here.

She proceeds to induce not-Marvin to bring a new fish around to her place. She is a pack rat, and the clerk finds a magazine here from the year he was born. Underneath it is a stone.

A healing stone.

She explains, giving it to him. Water pours out of the stone. Soon the furniture starts to bob up and down. There is a scream that becomes thunder, and the woman turns into a goldfish.

In micro-story-2, you meet Hannah, bicycling in the rain. Hannah becomes bloody. Story-3 moves the action to The Empire, a Chinese restaurant on Main Street: the Taiwanese waitress turns off her accent when Hannah comes in, and provides the injured bicyclist with medical attention. This woman dreams of bathing Hannah, of the water spilling over the tub, of coins falling from the sky, of a gong, of 67 years of marriage. But Hannah slips out of the restaurant and away …

And on the stories go. A little like a David Lynch movie, a little surreal. Only slowly do these tales wrap back around and tie all the character and relationship threads into place, one micro-story at a time. This all calls to mind that half-forgotten word, “synergy.” “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – that all this anarchic oddity eventually does make a lot of sense. Both in terms of the overt plot, and particularly in terms of the moist imagery and the thematics driving it. And yet … the “parts” are so witty and visually evocative! The moment-by-moment ride down this labyrinthine rabbit hole proves a brain-addling delight.

***

Tobin Gollihar (left) and Ian Paul Sieren, writer/performers of “Dearly Departed.” Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

Dearly Departed, written by and starring Tobin Gollihar and Ian Paul Sieren. Several characters are presented by just these two individuals. Curtain goes up on a little Wizard of Oz fever-dream that morphs into a moral nightmare: a professional cartoonist reclines down inside his grave, while above, his estranged parent is eulogizing over him:

He was a bad father. A bad husband.

Shocking the man in the grave. One incident follows the next – some narcotized, some realistic. Till, after intermission, the curling line of the bigger story begins to straighten out. Here you begin to perceive why this graveside statement can indeed be claimed about the cartoonist – can be thoroughly understood, and perhaps half-forgiven. The “why” also opens the door toward redeeming this state of affairs. The reasons have been complex, but ultimately the cure is utterly simple. And your confusion as an audience member, throughout the anarchic first two-thirds of these presented incidents? Emotionally, it snaps so sharply and poignantly into place that the thing you feel at the end – the compassion – is near overwhelming.

This is what theater can be. Running a gamut of offbeat cut-and-pasted bits and pieces, the storyline traveling all over hill and dale. But by curtain the puzzle of these micro-stories will have jigsawed itself together into a single, revelatory picture.

*

Ajai Trapathi’s “Osho Returns.”

Osho Returns, written and performed by Ajai Tripathi. This is another strange theater piece that dives down Alice’s rabbit hole. A reading you witnessed last autumn slated this bizarre piece to be the festival’s out-of-the-blue surprise hit. But in performance, it never quite got there. The Bhagwan Rajneesh, the “sex guru,” and his “cult” and commune, and government attempts to shut it down, are a perplexing chapter in late 20th century Oregon history. Tripathi’s quiet but steady performance reveals how witty and smart and down-to-earth (and maybe even wise) this controversial figure was, 40 years ago. Brought back to life at Hipbone Studio, the Bhagwan is being interviewed, being asked a series of rather banal questions. And the Bhagwan’s answers consistently startle you – each coming from straight out of left field.

The first document written in the world is a receipt.

The Bhagwan quips at one point, like an ancient Greek Cynic. This statement, you know, is historically true. Writing did begin as an aid to commerce. This tool of literacy was, initially, all about money … That maybe literacy is just a higher form of greed?

The tremendous courage to doubt everything – is needed . . . The death of the mind is the beginning of life.

He insists, now sounding like something of a cross between Socrates and the Buddha. Some of this stuff just knocks you over. And maybe has particular relevance today.

My gift is silence.

He offers to you, finally. That there is much too much electronic noise today, disrupting your brain.

Tripathi’s performance at Hipbone Studio restricts itself to exactly one hour. This is a mistake, because it puts the emphasis on the Bhagwan’s wit, his character, and his ideas – as interesting and entertaining as these are. Lost is what had fascinated you most from the earlier reading. The Bhagwan would take a question, then go off sideways to the question, on some weird and irrelevant-seeming tangent. Then his little discourse would sneakily curl back upon itself. To leave you stunned, standing in an entirely different intellectual and emotional place from where you began.

This process only appears once in the hour-long performance, but three or four times in the earlier reading. You have to wonder: Is this the Bhagwan’s shrewd and circuitous method of discourse? Or is this something that the playwright Tripathi invented and has added to the Bhagwan as an interpretive device to better understand this putative guru’s recorded words – i.e., a playwright’s gambit to bring the flavor of the Bhagwan’s ideas more vibrantly to life? Either way, the questions and the discourses which, in the earlier reading, “answer” these questions … have a shrewd and perverse communicational arc to them. Sneaky, snaky, libertine, and sobering. A gambit that succeeds at pulling you inside an entirely other view of reality.

***

Once you go down that rabbit hole and return, emotionally you cannot entirely shake it off and return complacently to the habitual conventions of your life. And how often can you say that about Portland theater on its mainstages? No matter how timely the content of a theater piece is – ultimately, the future of theater is not about content. It is about process. To the degree that theater is a reflection of real life, theater needs this. It needs to see existence as a weighted series of episodes – a converter-process of bumps in the road that give you pause – but that ultimately nudge you into moving forward. A very strange and round-about “forward” movement, granted. But forward to something new. New – and hopefully better.

This is the case with the musical Vortex 1, discussed in Part 1 of this Fertile Ground 2020 series: a converter-process for “thinking about the future.” And the case with the play Dorothy’s Dictionary in Part 2: a converter-process for “talking it thru.” And the case with the performance-piece How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman in Part 3: a converter-process for life’s “vulvagyric journey.” . . . Process, not content – going down a rabbit hole that pushes you to the far frontiers of the seemingly familiar, right up to the cusp of the absurd. Baby steps forward, which allow a conversion of some kind to take place. This is what, to you, constitutes the genuine theatrical process – a moment-to-moment grammar of transformation.

And perhaps the shrewdest theatricality of all is when you are so fascinated and entertained that you are not even aware of being taken down a rabbit hole – unaware of some ordinary emotion being converted into a healthier emotion, an emotion of an entirely different kind. Case in point:

Hannah Hogan and puppet in “Itch.” Photo: Eric Valentine

Itch, by Eve Johnstone and Rutabaga Story Co. (directed by Madison Mondeaux). This is a brave work. Presented at the Siren Theater, it consists of three modest two-character mini-plays totaling an hour running time (TV-episode length):

1. A young woman wanting to be liked at a party is hyper self-conscious about every move she makes and how she thinks others at the party will perceive her behavior. This “Narcissist” within her – quick to criticize the partygoer’s every move – is theatrically represented by a second character plus the talking hand-puppet this character employs.

No, not that. He’ll think you are being aloof.

Unh-uh. Careful, he’ll think you’re flirting. Think you are easy.

No, no, no. Don’t stand there against the wall, like a wallflower.

This leaves the woman incredibly jumpy. Finally this degree of self-judgment is too overwhelming, and the woman seeks safety via a soft couch and a cat to pet. Ignoring other people.

2. A woman shivers on a park bench, too scantily dressed for the weather. A nurse, on her way to work, joins the woman and engages her in conversation. Finally it comes out.

I feel bad all the time. But I have no reason to feel bad. I need something to happen. Something to point to – to say this is why I feel bad.

PTSD without an instigating stressor-event. Late for work, the nurse stops diagnosing and starts prescribing – concerned for the woman and wanting to help.

3. At another party, a young woman retreats to the bathroom, locks the door. No, not to sniff cocaine. She is there to cut herself on her inner thigh, as a means to relieve the psychic stress she is feeling socially. A second woman knocks on the door, anxious to piss, and is finally admitted into the small bathroom. A former cutter herself, this other woman quickly recognizes the symptoms – lifting three finger-puppets out from her bag, sliding them onto her fingers.

I stand in front of the mirror and they talk to me.

This is her half-step out of solipsism. It does not solve her psychic discomforts but eases the symptoms. Eases the symptoms via these whimsical cloth creatures. These amusing little puppets talk her problems through, lessening the stress she feels.

It’s better than cutting.

This second woman gifts her new friend one of her treasured finger-puppets – for the troubled woman to test-drive as a fantasy talk-buddy.

Human beings are social creatures. And as such, some people do feel extreme discomfort living entirely inside their own own head, inside their individual solipsism. A difficulty that occasionally takes the form of severe emotional pain. And these insecure individuals feel the need to act out, often in terms of self-harm.

A mosquito bite? The itch will go away in 20 minutes.

A voiceover tells you at the onset of this three-part play.

If you don’t scratch it.

Recent brain science points to the dACC (the dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex) region at the top front of the human brain. The job of this dACC bundle of neurons is to amplify physical and emotional pain enough so the person will recognize that there is a problem and then can deal with it. But sometimes this amplification process gets out of whack in some individuals, becoming like an autoimune disorder – a runaway train. Opioids and other painkillers (or self-destructive behaviors) can shut this part of the brain down, temporarily. But the physical or emotional pain keeps coming back, and seems always to grow larger.

The success of Buddhism as a religious practice stems from the fact that it devised a means (via a particular approach to meditation) in which to shut down this illusory physical and/or emotional pain (“duhkha”) in individuals. To pop its balloon.

Johnstone, however, postulates a different answer. To instead redirect this illusory pain, to convert it into something else. To proactively hop onboard these painful feelings and take a ride with it – spiraling down the rabbit hole.

The first woman, in Johnstone’s three-episode set, seeks merely to escape her self-induced trauma, by retreating to something physically comforting and nonhuman (the noises in the head, the cultural memes, will then quiet down). The second woman begins to deal with her trauma by accepting the help of another person, fortunately a different kind of “help” than she had originally envisioned (someone who is actually paying attention). The third woman is provided with a stopgap self-cure, one sufficient to last until she outgrows – with time, experience, maturity, and self-confidence – this obsessive need for physicalized self-abasement (a stopgap which is not merely a short-term surface cure, but one which is also fun and engaging). Three degrees of coping, presented this afternoon. Three degrees of emotional conversion of an unhealthy process into a healthier one.

Johnstone is talking about an uncomfortable subject in this set of mini-plays – self-harm in young women, women with no abuse in their family history to explain it away or give it melodramatic coloring. And because this “pain” stems from no originating trauma, “pain” cannot be the core of the problem facing these individuals. The cause itself is wisely and intentionally ignored by the playwright (the answer buried somewhere in the larger culture, or maybe in each individual’s genes?). The playwright treats the known symptoms instead, treating them with pity and understanding. But then going further. And this is all the braver, on Johnstone’s part – her having the audacity to use humor to lance and salve this festering wound. The three subplays are each, in their different ways, very very funny. You laugh, despite your discomfort at what you are witnessing.

You laugh and laugh. Because, like Johnstone, you and everyone in this age of individualism are also trapped inside your own solipsism – inside the problems generated by your own moment-to-moment extreme self-consciousness. Problems that can grow huge if you think too much or feel too much . . . But if you redirect this inordinate thinking and feeling down a rabbit hole of your own making? Emotionally convert it mini-episode by mini-episode into something more productive? . . . Yes, this would help you to cope. But you can do one better than just cope. Via a baby-step conversion process, you can build a new kind of future for yourself. Out there on the edge. Bravely.

On the cusp of the absurd.

***

This is the fourth and final episode in Jae Carlsson’s four-part series looking back on Portland’s 2020 Fertile Ground festival of new works. Previously:

***

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.