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Strike up the virtual festival band

ArtsWatch Weekly: Fertile Ground marches on, film fest updates, Hal Holbrook on jackasses & politics.


BELLS ARE NOT RINGING AND NO MARCHING BANDS OR HIGH-STEPPING HORSES are sashaying through the center of town, but it’s festival time in Portland. We’re talking, of course, about Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new performance works, which in an ordinary year would see revelers scurrying high, low, and in between across the metropolitan area, into basement and attic spaces and grand theater halls, to be among the first people on the planet to see the beginnings of upwards of a hundred new creative works, in all stages of development, from first readings to workshops to full-blown world premieres. Over its dozen years Fertile Ground has become something like a localized Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the restriction that shows aren’t imported – they have to be made here, by people who can plausibly claim to live here.

A whirlwind of dance, circus, and aerial action awaits in Petra Delarocha’s “Prismagic Radio Hour,” premiering at 9 p.m. Friday in Fertile Ground.

This year everything’s changed: What had been known and celebrated for its in-the-moment acts of performance has transformed because of Covid restrictions into a virtual festival. As the 2021 festival moves into its final days – it began on Jan. 28 and closes on Saturday, Feb. 7, although projects can be viewed online through Feb. 15 – ArtsWatch’s writers have racked up a lot of screen time. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve spent hours watching, and we’ll be watching more. One thing that’s stood out has been the ability of some projects to think like hybrids, making the most under the circumstances of the possibilities of both film and live performance. 

Screen shots of Duffy Epstein (left) and Rhyan Michele Hills as an odd-couple detective team in Kwik Jones’s “Cat Napper,” winner of the 2021 Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award.

Playwright Kwik Jones’s full-length Cat Napper, for instance, directed by Victor Mack and produced by the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, blends traditional storytelling styles with a savvily up-to-date spin. Counterintuitively in a world in which so many movies are heavy on action and light on language, it lives and breathes on an unrelenting stream of pointed, casually profane, and often witty words. With its rat-a-tat dialogue it’s like a contemporary screwball comedy crossed with a hard-boiled political thriller: Think His Girl Friday (which probably should’ve been called Her Boy Friday) with a dark touch of Chinatown. Everyone’s filmed in isolation but sharp editing makes it feel like the characters are in the same space, arguing things out face to face. The play has a caustically absurd undercurrent: World-weary Duffy Epstein and go-getter newcomer Rhyan Michele Hills find themselves a reluctant detective team investigating what’s supposed to be a series of cat-nappings but becomes, more deeply, a lonely and daunting battle against a world of cynical corruption. Jones takes a slyly playful approach to the genres he adopts, Mack’s performers deliver their lines with Gatling-gun precision and expressions attuned to the camera, and the editing keeps everything clipping along. They don’t make movies like this anymore. Maybe they should.

A much shorter piece – What a Memory Looks Like, by Eugene playwright (and occasional ArtsWatch contributor) Rachael Carnes – solves the is-it-a-play-or-is-it-a-film problem with a single creative swipe: It films its two characters against a backdrop of utter blackness, so that their eerily lighted faces appear to be in the same nether space, two bright, animated, and disembodied heads emerging – surviving, really – in some sort of post-apocalyptic void. Part of PDX Playwrights’ Epic Shorts program, it has a futuristic gleam, with Jennifer Lanier as the surviving memory of a morose rhinoceros and Connie Kirk as the chirpy afterthought of a koala. Something’s happened, and it’s not looking good for the planet. Sarah Andrews directs, and Eric Bloombaum is the video editor who brings light out of the dark.

Out of the darkness, light: screen shot of Jennifer Lanier and Connie Kirk in Rachael Carnes’ “What a Memory Looks Like,” from PDX Playwrights’ “Epic Shorts.”   


But wait. There’s more. Fertile Ground 2021 so far, through ArtsWatch writers’ eyes:


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  • Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout. Bennett Campbell Ferguson previews the festival and talks with director Nicole Lane about the switch from live to online viewing.
  • Interactive cookies and scares. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about two plays with interactive aspects: Fold in Gently and RE: Lilith Lopez.
  • Martha Bakes in Black & White. Bobby Bermea talks with playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb about Martha Bakes, a play about race and history and the nation’s first First Lady in her colonial kitchen.
  • Tough questions, tough answers. Lisa Collins’ “wonderful and exacting” new play Be Careful What You Ask For delves into a Portland killing and matters of race, Max Tapogna writes.
  • The rhythm and meaning of Lilies. In the short Lilies, Max Tapogna writes, poet Joni Whitworth and filmmaker Hannah Piper Burns find the mythic amid the reality of Covid-19.
  • A “Hot Mess” of a zombie jamboree. Mark LaPierre and Ian Anderson-Priddy’s zombie comic-book musical, Max Tapogna writes, will make your pulse rush. If you have one.


Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas in “What Happened Was …,” “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of awkward first-date movies.

STREAMERS: PIFF LINEUP, “WHAT HAPPENED WAS,” AND MORE. Marc Mohan gets a sneak peek at some of the titles for this year’s 44th annual Portland International Film Festival, which is surviving the crazy times like the rest of us. “When the emergent pandemic forced last year’s Portland International Film Festival, like the rest of the country, to abruptly shut down, the idea that this year’s festival would also be impacted by the coronavirus was so absurd that it hardly bore contemplation,” Mohan writes. “And yet, here we are.” This week’s “Streamers” announces a vanguard of five films (including Portlander Alicia Rose’s A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff) out of an eventual 80 or so, including 45 features, that will run March 5-14. Among non-PIFF releases: the return of What Happened Was …, a movie Mohan refers to as “the Citizen Kane of awkward first-date movies.”

  • DEREK SITTER: EXPLORING THE TIES BETWEEN PRIVILEGE AND TRAUMA. David Bates talks with the Bend filmmaker about Sitter’s tense Tutu Grande. Sitter’s 12-minute dive into power, greed, and consequence, Bates writes, i “surely the most excruciating, difficult-to-watch of the 127 films” at the McMinnville Short Film Festival. Bates adds, “It’s also one of the festival’s best.” The McMinnville festival starts screening Feb. 18.


Goodbye, and thanks: Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain during a performance at the University of Houston (photo via Wikimedia Commons); Cicely Tyson as herself (1973 photo Dutch National Archives, The Hague, via Wikimedia Commons).

NEWS CAME IN THE PAST WEEK OF THE DEATHS OF ACTORS CICELY TYSON AND HAL HOLBROOK, following closely on the death of another highly talented actor, Cloris Leachman. Tyson died a week ago, on Jan. 28, at 96. Holbrook died at age 95 on Jan. 23, but his death wasn’t announced until Tuesday of this week. Like the rest of the world I could only admire Tyson, deeply and over the decades, as a riveting and honest performer and a hugely significant public figure: From Sounder to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to Roots and much more, she made the world a better place.

I watched Holbrook perform over many years, too, in movies and on television and several times in his ever-changing, always richly rewarding solo stage show Mark Twain Tonight!. I had two long conversations with him, the first in 1988, the second – which I wrote about for ArtsWatch in a piece titled Hal Holbrook on jackasses and Mark Twain’s wound – in January 2012, when he was just shy of 87 years old and getting ready to perform Mark Twain Tonight! in Portland once again. Among many other things, he talked about the tortured position of Twain’s masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, in American literature and culture, saying he understood why young Black men in particular didn’t want to read it. And he talked a good deal about politics, revealing an acute sense of the direction the nation was heading.

“What Holbrook is, and has been since the late 1940s,” I wrote in that story, “is the modern American voice of Mark Twain. It’s been a rare and abiding partnership: good for Twain, good for Holbrook, good for America. All three, as it turns out, are obsessed with this circus parade called politics, and with the queasy suspicion that somehow we’ve turned the parade route over to the clowns. ‘One of my favorite lines of Twain’s,’ Holbrook told me 24 years ago, ‘he called Washington ‘a stud farm for every jackass in the country.’’ If anything, Holbrook’s satirical bent has deepened in the ensuing years to an anger tinted with moroseness. ‘Common sense,’ he told me glumly a couple of weeks ago, ‘is out of place in Washington.’

“Indeed, what makes Twain refreshing and the great literary figure he remains is the toughness, the candor, the sometime bleakness that lay so close beneath his genial cream-colored surface. As constant as he seems in the American imagination – Holbrook was, is, and will be our public concept of the voice and carriage of Samuel Clemens – a man can change in 24 years. In Holbrook that change seems a firming and quickening of traits that were already there, and perhaps an urgency that comes with age: time’s running short, and things must be done and said. …
“Much of what was on his mind was the deterioration of public life, and the role that political cynicism has played in it. ‘We’re in it together,’ he said. ‘And we’re in a mess. And we’re in a mess because people are not telling the truth. … Everybody is trying to twist the truth around to make a point. When you take truth out of a society based on a democratic principle, people lose faith. … I find myself looking back at what the country used to be. And I hear our politicians calling for a return to our Founding Fathers. These people don’t know what our Founding Fathers believed in.’” 

It’s as if he were speaking today.


BodyVox’s “Synaesthesia” pops up in a video installation in the Maddox Building Feb. 4-6. Photo: Randall L. Milstein

HERE WE ARE, MORE THAN A MONTH INTO THE YEAR beyond the year that must not speak its name, and as much as life may seem the same, it also rolls on. February brings a fresh round of things to see, hear, read, and do, and ArtsWatch has the lowdown in a handful of monthly guides. Read on:

DANCEWATCH: JAN-BRUARY IS THE RESILIENT MONTH. Jamuna Chiarini, in her monthly outlook (with a quick dip into some things that started in January), finds some flex and spring in Oregon’s February dance scene, even if most of it is dancing on screens. One highlight: BodyVox’s pop-up video installation at the Maddox Building, Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 4-6. As Chiarini explains it: “Every thirty minutes, 15 audience members will be allowed to enter the gallery to engage in a three-dimensional, multi-projection world of light, music, and dance. Featured will be three BodyVox dance films accompanied by the music of Maurice Ravel, Ludovico Einaudi, and Mark Mothersbaugh.”


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Oscar Wilde in 1884, the year of his love letter to his wife. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

LITWATCH MONTHLY: LOVE AND LITERATURE. Any opportunity to see the classic photograph of Oscar Wilde above bodes well. And any column that begins by quoting Wilde’s 1884 letter to his wife, Constance Lloyd – “a letter of both intoxicating literary prowess and heartfelt affection,” as Amy Leona Havin puts it in her February column on literary events – bodes just as well. The immediate connection is an upcoming series of workshops from Literary Arts on the art of writing letters. That’s only the beginning of a fertile month of literary occurrences.

In her show “Pangea” at Carnation Contemporary, Lindsay Costello writes, “Hannah Newman uses rocks, minerals, sound, and sculpture to reflect on opportunities for new relationships between information, community, and consciousness; the result is a colorful landscape of geologic forms intertwined with technology.” Photo courtesy the gallery.

VIZARTS MONTHLY: INVIGORATE WITH ART. What’s happening in February in the galleries? “This month the Portland art scene is overflowing with new exhibitions, screenings, and lectures to brighten the winter gloom,” Lindsay Costello writes – and that includes virtual exhibitions, too. Exhibits range from Avantika Bawa’s architectural constructions at AGENDA, to outdoors art at Congress Yard Projects, to a livestreamed program from PICA featuring U.S.-based undocumented writers and poets discussing mental health topics, to an intriguing double feature of work by Billy White and Bill Traylor at Adams & Ollman.

NOW HEAR THIS: FEBRUARY EDITION. Once a month for ArtsWatch, Robert Ham scours the pages of music distributor Bandcamp, looking for new work from local artists that would make fine additions to your digital library. This time around, that includes Quadraphonnes and quarantined overdubs, delicate synths and deconstructed metal, moody rap and all-ages kids music, and plenty more–just in time for Bandcamp’s first Fee Free First Friday of 2021. To borrow a mantra from those kids formerly known as “hippies” once upon a time long, long ago: Turn on, tune in, drop some new sounds onto your playlist.


The Oregon Symphony Orchestra has canceled its concerts through June because of Covid-19 restrictions, and hopes to get back in the concert halls in Fall 2021. Grants from the NEA totalling $35,000 will help support its operations in Portland and Salem.

IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR FINANCIALLY FOR ARTISTS AND ARTS GROUPS IN OREGON and across the nation, with budgets taking a hammering because of pandemic shutdowns. Foundations, private donors, and various levels of government have stepped in to help, but with so many other parts of the economy also in crisis, their resources are stretched. Still, aid continues. The National Endowment for the Arts’s winter round of grants for 2021 includes 16 in Oregon, totalling $336,500. Where the money’s going

  • Southern Oregon University Foundation, Ashland,  for chamber music concerts: $10,000.
  • BendFilm Inc., Bend: $10,000.
  • Lane Arts Council, Eugene: $20,000.
  • Oregon Folklife Network, through University of Oregon, Eugene: $30,000.
  • All Classical Portland radio, for presenting and multidisciplinary works: $20,000.
  • Allison A. deFreese, Portland, for literary translation projects: $12,500.
  • Miracle Theatre Group/Milagro Theatre, Portland: $15,000.
  • Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland: $10,000.
  • Oregon Symphony, Portland: $25,000.
  • Oregon Symphony in Salem: $10,000.
  • Portland Center Stage theater, $20,000.
  • Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA): $30,000.
  • Portland Playhouse theater: $10,000.
  • Portland State University, museum grant: $20,000.
  • Western Alliance of Arts Administrators Foundations, Portland: $50,000.
  • Young Audiences of Oregon, Portland, for arts education: $35,000.


Company dancer Liane Burns (left) and Artistic Director Shaun Keylock. Photo: Nicholas Peter Wilson.

SHAUN KEYLOCK COMPANY: DANCING THE PAST INTO THE FUTURE. For the Portland choreographer, Elizabeth Whelan writes, Jan. 1, 2020 wasn’t just the beginning of a new year: “It was the day he opened the doors of his brand-new contemporary dance space, Shaun Keylock Studio, in the Albina neighborhood of North Portland.” Then, of course, the rest of 2020 happened. So how, Whelan wondered, are things looking now? “Keylock … was forced to rethink what it meant to be a small business owner with a financial plan based entirely upon humans gathering together in an enclosed space.” For starters, he’s looking to the past for a key to the future: a collaboration with an older generation of dancemakers in a series that begins with Portland contemporary master Gregg Bielemeier.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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