Bobby Berea

Fertile Ground reviews: Solo showcases

Single-performer shows highlight Portland's valuable annual new theater works festival

“It takes a great team to create a one-person show,” writes creator/performer Sam Reiter in her program notes to Baba Yaga. The same sentiment was expressed by just about every other writer of the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work shows I saw that relied on a single performer to carry the story onstage. Maybe that teamwork — a hallmark of Portland creativity — helps explain why so many were so surprisingly successful. Whether it’s thanks to the author of a book or play adapted into a FG production, the various shows’ directors, designers, or other backstage contributors, these apparent solo vehicles reflect productive creative collaborations.

Baba Yaga

Reiter herself portrays several characters in her triumphant show at Portland’s intimate Headwaters Theatre, using the notorious mythical crone as a narrator who frames several tales, with Reiter deftly shifting roles as easily as she doffs her babushka, sometimes shedding decades of life experience in the process. And even though Baba Yaga is Reiter’s story, crafted over the past couple years during her studies at Lewis & Clark College and Moscow Art Theatre, she does receive abundant assistance from director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, lighting designer/tech director Corey McCarey, and especially actor/graphic designer/shadow puppeteer Robert Amico, whose silent shadow, projected onto screens, portrays various characters and whose gorgeous designs really enhance the mythological atmosphere.

“Baba Yaga is at once kind and cruel, amoral and material, helpful and hindering,” Reiter writes. “In some stories, she is either good or evil; in others, she is a mixture of both.” Reiter’s announced intention is to somehow reconcile those contradictions in the various portrayals of the infamous character from Slavic mythology — a tough challenge as the legends likely arose from different sources over centuries. And yet Reiter cleverly manages to concoct or discern a plausible character motivation for a complex archetype.

"Baba Yaga." Photo: Trevor Sargent.

“Baba Yaga.” Photo: Trevor Sargent.

To understand all may be, as the saying goes, to forgive all, but in this early incarnation of the show, Reiter may have gone a bit too far in sympathizing with her bloodthirsty protagonist, who comes off as more a relatively benign trickster than a wicked witch capable of the cannibalistic cruelty in some of the tales. Though “there’s always a risk that she will gobble you up,” Reiter’s notes explain, I never felt much risk; I wanted moments with a sharper edge, a little more blood, and maybe a bit less Portland nice in both the action recounted and Reiter’s portrayal. But she’s surely found an original and compelling angle on a complex character and a story that I hope she’ll continue to develop — abetted, of course, by the rest of her excellent creative team.

Dear Committee Members

Readers Theatre Repertory actor David Berkson also plays his character a bit Portland-nicer than the source material in his engaging premiere performance of Dear Committee Members at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, RTR’s longtime home. Berkson’s own adaptation of Julie Schumacher’s popular *link novel that skewers academic pettiness is an entirely epistolary adventure, in which he reads the letters prolifically generated by a self-styled “cantankerous pariah” English professor (tenured, of course, so he can get away with his sardonic, sometimes vitriolic missives) at a lower-tier university.

This might not sound like a promising set-up for drama, but Berkson’s performance is far more than a straight reading, as Schumacher’s novel is much more than merely a series of satirical jabs — though it is that, too. And it’s not just for veterans of academe’s absurdities and annoyances.

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