Fertile Ground, greater Portland’s 13th annual festival of new works, opens its 10-day run on Thursday of 37 new projects, some of them showcases of several short works. For the second straight year the festival is virtual because of Covid precautions, although a few projects also have scheduled live performances.
Fertile Ground offers a kind of smorgasbord of the creative process, ranging from staged readings of plays to workshop productions to full-blown premieres. It also adds the challenge of virtual delivery, via video or audio feed or Zoom: Some shows in the Jan. 27-Feb. 6 festival are streamed live or even interactively, others are prerecorded. And it covers the performance waterfront, from traditional comedies and dramas to dance, musical theater, puppetry, solo shows, comedy, aerial movement, and more.
For the past two years the festival, which had been a sprawling, come-one-come-all affair often with more than 100 projects, has of necessity been smaller and curated. Still, 37 shows is a lot, especially in Covid times. Several projects have been spotlighted with GROW Awards, highlighting shows from underrepresented communities; each award comes with $500 to help finance production costs.
In DanceWatch: Moving into Fertile Ground, ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini takes a look at the festival’s dance and movement projects, including Echo Theatre’s “Touch and Go,” Fool House Art Collective’s “Heart of Stone,” Portland Eurythmy’s “Earth: This Being Human,” and the several showcases hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre’s “Groovin’ Greenhouse.” Check her column for details.
To get you started, here’s a look at the rest of Fertile Ground’s 2022’s offerings:
A new piece by E.M. Lewis, author of “Magellanica,” “The Gun Play,” and others, is always something to look forward to, and her play “Apple Hunters!” – about three friends hunting for a lost variety, the Golden Hawk, in the apple-knocking territories of Washington state –will get an hour-and-a-half reading from Linestorm Playwrights.
“Apple Hunters!” isn’t Lewis’s only work in this year’s Fertile Ground. Her play “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” about the relationship between an angry high school student and an ailing librarian, is this year’s entry from the Portland Civic Theatre Guild.
Another playwright to watch for, Sara Jean Accuardi, premieres her hour-long audio drama “Landscape” from Theatre Vertigo. It’s set during the waning days of the 2020 presidential election (you know: those happy days when everything was harmonious, peace and goodwill roamed the halls of Congress, and the nation was blissfully united as one) as a single mother attempts to weather the pandemic, politics, and other urgent problems.
Yet another seasoned Portland playwright, C.S. Whitcomb, enters the field with an intriguing-sounding project – a reading of her full-length play “White Rabbit,” with a promising cast including Kelsey Glasser, Tom Walton, and Don Stewart Burns. Delving into American cultural history, it’s set in the UCLA Film School in 1971, and involves a student and a mysterious guerilla filmmaker who was a friend of rock star Jim Morrison. “This is about the art of making film on no budget while the draft looms and Vietnam rages,” Whitcomb declares. “It is also a love story.”
Meanwhile, who knows what-all’s going on out there in the nouveau Wild West? The inventive minds at Hand2Mouth Theatre attempt to nail some of it down in “The Town of Many Names: Digital Wild West Edition.” It’s a work in progress growing out of a summer devising program for youth, and it considers the question, “What would Westerns look like if they weren’t all created by old white men?”
As Donald O’Connor pattered in “Singin’ in the Rain,” make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh. “Stuff of the Dead” is a comedy from a group called, somewhat puckishly, The Oregon Rim Estate Sale Association. It’s “a cultural look at estate sales,” and you can only imagine (at least, until you see the show) what sort of dark comedy might arise from that.
The festival includes full-blown musical theater. “The Belongings,” Chad Dickerson’s new work from Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, is about “four people born as adults” who discover, to their wonder, music, dance, and humor – but also a lurking dark force.
“Pledge: The Musical,” with book by Don Merrill and music by Melody Bell, will have a staged reading. It’s based on Merrill’s 2019 book “Pledge: The Public Radio Fund Drive,” and emerges, as he describes it, as a somewhat farcical cross of PBS earnestness and “The Book of Mormon.”
A very different sort of pledge is at the core of Johanna Courtleigh’s “Pledging Allegiance,” which will have a staged reading from Count the Ways Productions. It is, she says, a “braid of stories” weaving together her grandmother’s exodus from Lithuania as a small girl, her own experience of becoming a U.S. citizen in the time of Trump, and “a challenging encounter with an immigration official, crossing the border on a train.”
Back to music, there’s always room for that American standard, the singer/songwriter. “At age 65 I started taking singing lessons because, if not then, when would I learn to sing?” Warren Bull explains about his new show, “New Music,” which follows from those singing lessons, time in choirs and recitals, a little music theory, and eventually the big step into writing his own songs and lyrics.
Another form of music, or moaning, or wail from the soul, is keening, or caoineadh, the Celtic tradition that, as Mikki Jordan describes it, is “a form of vocal lament for the dead traditionally performed by women prior to burial.” Jordan’s workshop performance of “The Keening Revival” is, she declares, “born out of pandemic times,” and “serves as a meditation on isolation, both within the experience of grief as well as within the creative process itself.”
And there’s cabaret: singer/writer Tim LaFolette’s “Live Your Life,” which traces in music a journey from evangelical faith to queer culture.
Demitri Tostado’s “Revelations 0:1,” meanwhile, takes what appears to be a very different religious journey from LaFollette’s: a family squabble among “the most famous dysfunctional family in the whole of religion,” including Lucifer, “the most unclean”; Jesi, who tries to talk Lucifer out of following through on that Book of Revelation stuff; and God the Father, who’s “been on a bit of a bender.”
Valerie Yvette Peterson’s “The Knowledge of Good and Evil” appears to bring the big questions to an intensely personal level. Royal Harris and Christopher Brackett star in this short film as African American brothers who clash over how to preserve their family’s legacy as they face “difficult decisions that will challenge their shared upbringing, spirituality and moral compass.”
Then again, there’s the potentially wild spiritual ride of Peter Armetta’s “Space Rangers (or the Cosmos, Life and the Possible Nature of God),” about a fellow named Paul who’s “about to encounter Omar, a Space Ranger who encourages him to speculate about the real nature of God, and Marcia, a mysterious woman who dwells somewhere in the Cosmos and claims that she’s his ‘life’.” One never knows, does one?
At Lakewood Theatre, the Young Playwrights Festival is directed by Matt Zrebski, who’s been a leading light of theater for young people for many years, as a playwright, composer, director, and administrator. Five young playwrights, under Zrebski’s direction and mentored by playwright C.S. Whitcomb (see “White Rabbit,” above), present their own work.
Fertile Ground has puppets. “Alma’s Wish,” a half-hour show from Leaven Dream Puppets, blends folk beliefs, current events, songs and “the Czech tradition of socially engaged puppetry.”
“Cosmogonos,” from Yantra Productions and creator/director/filmmaker Ajai Tripathi, is also a puppet show. It includes two short pieces in its half hour; one from Mesoamerican mythology, one a dream of the world’s creation, from India, using Vedic mythology.
Did we mention politics somewhere along the line? In Heather Lundy Kahl’s “Ro and Jo: A Tale of Woe,” a contemporary take on “Romeo and Juliet,” the lead characters are the kids of bitterly competing candidates. It’s getting a fully staged workshop production of what’s being billed as “an original, queer-centric, female-driven, playful-yet-passionate take on a classic cautionary tale that reminds us that when the grown-ups can’t get along, it’s the youth who ultimately pay the price.”
This year’s festival explores plenty of contemporary issues. One potential highlight is Vanport Mosaic’s “SOUL’D: the economics of our Black bodies (the joy edition),” conceived by the Mosaic’s Damaris Webb and devised by several Black performers, designers, and filmmakers. The questions it explores are crucial as it “gaze(s) through the macro-cosims of slavery to present day post-Obama backlash. What is Black wealth? What is Black joy? How has Black American growth manifest(ed) – despite disenfranchisement in passing on wealth through land ownership, knowledge of lineage, and financial freedom?”
Fred Cooprider’s play “Crossroads at Chambersburg” takes a historical look at similar territory: It’s based on the 19th century Black intellectual and leader Frederick Douglass and the white abolitionist John Brown, before his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and their arguments over tactics in the battle against slavery.
Karen Kalensky’s half-hour play “Endangered Species” mixes its dramatic pot with a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a woman who’s amassed huge student-loan debts, a government roundup of educated people to be “re-educated” and made docile, and a gun-toting insurgent. We can only presume, ka-boom.
“Quality of Death,” from Thinking People’s Theater, is a two-hour play by Ruth Jenkins, a speech pathologist, actor, and longtime co-leader of ComedySportz Portland who also has 25 years of experience in home health and hospice and palliative care. The play, which also has live performances scheduled at Twilight Theatre, explores end-of-life issues. “I have spent time with the warehoused,” Jenkins notes.
Another potential festival highlight is RaChelle Schmidt’s contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” It’s a reading, directed by Michael Streeter, and it’s free. Ibsen’s potent 1882 tale about a small town that doesn’t want to hear about the factory pollutants endangering its tourist-drawing spa is an ever-recurring echo in the clash between economics and environmental sustainability.
And speaking of refashioned classics, the cleverly titled “LaRondeStorm,” from the writers of LineStorm Playwrights, is a group project in the form of Arthur Schnitzler’s famously circular comedy of love and assignations.
Utopia and all of its tantalizing and starry-eyed promises rear their culteriffic head in “Our Utopia,” a workshop production from Bag&Baggage of Carlos-Zenen Trujillo’s play about a community-theater production of a play putting to rest all those nasty rumors about how all is not perfect in their perfect little harmonious slice of Heaven on Earth. Yes, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest have a long and bedazzling/befuddling history of utopian experiments.
This year’s Fertile Ground has storytelling: “Expectations,” from the Portland Storytellers Guild.
It has improv: the stories of “Found Objects,” “invented on the spot for you” by Amy “Taj” Baker and the group Meta-Forage.
It even has a two-plus hour allusion to opera: “Figaro’s Follies, or The Night of Misrule,” adapted by John Freed for Triad Showcase Theatre from Mozart’s and Beaumarchais’ opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” with a civil-liberties twist added to the farcical hijinks.
Keep ’em short, keep ’em short, keep ’em short: The members of PDX Playwrights are offering a couple of programs of quick dramas and comedies – five of ’em, each by a different writer, in “Love Over Everything,” and, more audaciously, “ZOOM Instant 48-Hour Play Festival,” which the group describes as “this miniature festival-within-the-festival-within-the-festival.” It’s a high-wire, high-speed act: Six writers will cast, write, rehearse, and have their short pieces performed within a 48-hour time span from beginning to end.
New Beginnings Productions is offering a two-fer of staged readings from writers Laura Handke and Jennifer Soldberg. “Second Chances” is about a couple of college roommates who go their extremely different ways and meet again 30 years later; “New Beginnings” is about a young woman who’s about to marry while dealing with her mother’s death, dealing with family troubles, and finding a hopeful path into the future.
Every festival needs a little sex appeal, and the fearlessly appealing solo performer Eleanor O’Brien provides it with her newest sex-positive show, “The Cult of Cunnilingus.” Imagine, if you will … well, just imagine. And remember that O’Brien is a very good performer. This show is a reimagined-for-Zoom version of a previous Fertile Ground hit that toured the Canadian Fringe circuit and is headed, Covid willing, for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Ideally, every festival also ought to have something about a pirate, and if it’s a woman pirate, all the better. Enter “The Misadventures of Missy Black: A Pirate Play,” a staged reading of a full-length play by Riley Anna. The pirate queen in question rises to prominence after a forced marriage to a pirate, a mutiny and attempted drowning, and the gathering of her own swashbuckling crew – all while attempting to keep in contact with the son of the Connecticut governor. Ahoy, indeed. One good omen: It comes from Do It for Mead Productions, named for the inimitable and lately retired dramaturg, man-about-the-theater, and University of Portland prof Mead Hunter.