Fertile Ground 2014

Fertile Ground Review: Middle Names

Serious dialogue drama in a hot hotel room

When playwright Corey O’Hara and director Nate Cohen pitched me their play during Fertile Ground Speed Dating, I may have gotten the wrong impression. I heard “high stakes game of rock-paper-scissors,” and “the room ends up covered in paint,” and I thought “college comedy.” Maybe even slapstick. How else does paint get everywhere? (It’s Nickelodeon circa 1985, and you just said “I don’t know.”) I didn’t imagine the intractable tension and despair that would accompany these gestures. Maybe I would’ve, had they mentioned THE GUN. And yes, Chekhov, it fires.

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Middle Names is confined to four characters, a hotel room, and real time—constraints that make staging very manageable, but dialogue writing extra-demanding. Fortunately, playwright Corey O’Hara has great instincts, winning influences (Sam Shepard, Martin McDonagh) and the benefit of plenty of prior workshopping arranged by Lewis & Clark College’s theater department. That combination already helped make the play a candidate for the Kennedy Center’s John Cauble Short Play Award, and will make it one of the highlights of Fertile Ground.

Three of the story’s four characters are connected via their dearly-departed friend MacLean, whose ashes they’ve just strewn in the ocean. The drug-addled Eliot Grail (Brandon Cieslak) was his brother, the stoic Raymon Veldman (O’Hara) his best friend, the pregnant Birchie Lee (Jahnavi Caldwell-Green) had him for her secretly gay but openly religious boyfriend. The fourth character, Gabriela (Liz Ghiz), more or less comes with the hotel, but ends up revealing a back-story with Eliot.

For young people, these characters have lived implausibly full lives. At just 17, Eliot’s already managed to get married and divorced in Mexico, and has apparently forgotten it ever happened thanks to a roaring cocaine habit. Birchie’s gotten pregnant, and Ray’s impregnated her, before either have even learned to drive. And the absent MacLean has dispatched himself, letting his hopelessness spread to his loved ones like a contagion.

This is a sophisticated script. It’s edgy, taut, and unpredictable. It’s unsafe, from beginning to end. And I have no doubt its producers will take that as a compliment. Now, for a few finer points:

Eliot’s manic rantings and erratic moves, and his friends’ attempts to ignore them, are initially the center of attention. He’s hopping on the furniture, scratching, sweating, over-gesticulating, and wiping his nose. But Cieslak’s delivery leaves his actual lines (no pun intended) less intelligible than they might be. I say “might,” because Eliot’s para-psychotic speech pattern—the type oft noted on hospital charts as “word salad”—might be senseless, or it might reveal the speaker’s synaptic leaps in a way that’s actually rather intriguing. Whether Eliot’s lines are total nonsense or pig-Latin logic is difficult to tell, as the actor pants his words semi-intelligibly between antics. If his lines aren’t coherent anyway, then of course we don’t need to hear them specifically, and his delivery’s fine as-is. But if there are thrilling turns of phrase in there…then they need to be brought out.

When chamber maid Gabriela (Liz Ghiz) talks to Eliot, her lines are also somewhat rushed and overborne by the acting. Does she share a lot of details, or only paint a cryptic picture? It’s hard to tell through all her yelling, and that becomes important because her story isn’t typical teen fare.

While we’re at it, there’s something else a little “off” about this Eliot character: his supposed cocaine addiction would make more sense as meth. Perhaps coke’s higher social standing makes that drug more narratively approachable for Lewis & Clarkers than glass would be, but that very trait also makes it less plausible in the story. Show me inept teens in dirty white t-shirts crashing in half-renovated hotel rooms…and there be the monsters of meth.

As Ray, O’Hara gives himself a role that first seems deadpan, but is actually grieving lost innocence. “Have you had sex?” he asks Eliot, adding, “Well, don’t.” As he opens up, we find him reframing his inner pain into an accusatory neurosis. People smell disgusting, sex feels invasive, coffee drives you crazy. Everything sucks. He sullenly shuts out his baby-mamma Birchie, seeming to hope that ignoring her will make her (and the condition) go away. As an actor, O’Hara wisely hangs up his writer hat, inhabiting the story without any apparent vanity at having penned it, and saving the plainest lines rather than the most eloquent for himself.

Jahnavi Caldwell-Green has a heavy burden as Birchie; she comes out and says what the others are suppressing, and it’s she who brings the story to a fever pitch of despair. In her pinnacle scene, she tearfully, sweatily wrestles the phrase “hot and heavy” back into its original meaning: she feels heavy. And it’s hot. Any winking teenage application of the phrase as a sex descriptor is rendered obsolete, even as the character has felt her sex appeal replaced too soon with the discomfort and obligation of pregnancy. It’s a hard role to play perfectly, but Caldwell-Green pretty well nails it.

I’m left with the hunch that this is exactly the type of show serious theater buffs are hoping to see at a fringe festival: a dialogue-centric, dramatic new work that debuts new talents, with plenty to recommend it, yet a little room to grow. It continues at Action/Adventure Theatre this weekend.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Fertile Ground Review: Remme’s Run

Portland Playhouse's novel prospector comedy still has a ways to go.

“Did you get all that?” might be the first question to fly out of your mouth after seeing Whink Productions’ Remme’s Run at Portland Playhouse, Wayne Harrel’s fast-paced old-west adventure story of various fortunes worked for, won, lost, stolen and squandered.

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Twainish narrator The Captain (Chris Porter) reads the tale from a yellowed copy of The Oregonian as the intrepid Remme immerses himself in a journey through amusingly hokey (and nonetheless impressive) special stage effects. In this Fertile Ground festival production, he “rides horses” by perching on a stool in front of projections of the running beasts. He “fords rivers” by standing on one edge of the floor and letting projected waves bear a swimming image of him to the other side. Every new environment he enters is depicted as a brown ink woodcut projected on the wall. Saloons, landscapes, and waterways glide by like History Channel b-roll.

Not sure if I got the whole story myself, but near’s I can tell, Remme, a French gentleman, has traded all his real money for one-a them thar paper notes from a bank, with plans to travel to Oregon, redeem his cash at the bank’s Portland branch, and start a homestead farm on Sauvie Island. Unfortunately, the bank’s about to go bust, and Remme’s got to travel faster than the news of the closure if he wants his money. So Remme takes off for Portland by land, while his two cowhands and his betrothed go by riverboat.

Bless his heart, Remme is a good guy, and Jeff Painter plays the part with a grin so blithe and constant it borders on witless, and a French accent as thick as crème fraîche. Think Kids in the Hall‘s Dave Foley in his “trapper” sketches, and you’ve basically got the picture. Maybe mix in a little Cohen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. Remme’s quaint reckonings of our region—You can’t find a good wife in Portland; Sauvie Island is regularly “washed clean” by the Willamette—earn a chuckle for what has (or hasn’t?) changed ’round here since 1882.

While Remme’s mired in his own private Pilgrim’s Progress, with every river a new slough of despair to torment his righteous effort, pals Bose Bosewell (Gerrin Mitchell) and Jordan Linn (Jack Kelley) and his lady love Ninfa Noé (Tricia Castañeda-Gonzales) are a lot wilier than their French friend. They decide to use their downtime on the boat to bilk their fellow passengers out of a fortune playing crooked card games. Their game of choice is faro, a gambling setup that the crew at Portland Playhouse enthusiastically demonstrates before the play begins, urging audience members to place fake coins on the table and experience the luck of the draw. Their scheme becomes a key source of suspense in the plot; after all, we already know Remme’s gonna make it, or there wouldn’t be a legend.

The show is a work in progress, and though it’s already spirited, amusing and engaging, it still feels … surface-y. In prospector parlance, it pans for gold but doesn’t mine for coal. With the outcome already in the bag, what we need to feel is a stronger connection to Remme, and a clearer comprehension of each of his challenges along the path—so we can root harder. Many characters in Remme’s odyssey come and go too fleetingly to impart any symbolic significance. Meanwhile, a lone hymn sung a capella seems to be a placeholder for the play’s emotional core, but has yet to tap it. Instead, the song seems to have fallen out of last month’s A Christmas Carol and landed here by accident. It needs to be … tucked in better, or taken out.

But the playwright and producers already knows there’s more to be done, as noted in the prologue: “Our goal is to grow and of course to amuse.” That’s okay; Remme has begun a journey, and will probably soon find his way.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Fertile Ground Review: Groovin’ Greenhouse

Polaris premiered new works in progress, and opened its annual showcase with Automal and PDX Dance Collective.

Automal lost their music but kept their cool on the opening night of Polaris-hosted Groovin' Greenhouse.

Automal lost their music but kept their cool on the opening night of Polaris-hosted Groovin’ Greenhouse.

Polaris Dance’s Groovin’ Greenhouse is a Fertile Ground Festival mainstay, one of the first dance events on the mostly-theater roster, and still the most abundant source of dance shows in the fest. This year, Polaris will host 10 other dance companies at its studio, closing each evening with its own workshop performances. (Though the openers will change each night, the Polaris shows will stay consistent throughout the run.) It’s a rare opportunity for the company to rehearse in front of an audience, and, true to the “Greenhouse” metaphor, you can watch the shows growing.

When Polaris artistic director Robert Guitron announced the opening night program, he seemed eager to differentiate his company’s shows from the visitors’. “They’re not adjudicated, and we take them first-come-first-serve,” he said. Well then. We’ll see what we get. But let’s not trample the tender shoots.

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Polaris’s latest explorations, Exams and a piano-accompanied work yet to be named, share a common theme: rebellion against regimented systems. The former spells out schoolroom angst; the latter hints at office neurosis. And the fact that they’re presented in that order gives a feeling of chronological progression: First the teacher keeps you down, then the Man. Ironically, the best way to depict a regimented system through dance is to perform tightly-synchronized choreography, the discipline of which…and we’re full circle. Rules have been made, to show that rules are made to be broken.

Exams is set to a rhythmic soundscape (metronome clicks, a piano loop of minor arpeggio) overlaid with the spoken word of British poet Suli Banks, who rants about the irrelevance of standardized exams and status quo teaching methods in the information age. The expressive faces of Kieraqmil Brinkley and an unlisted male dancer are a focal point in the hoodie-clad, co-ed troupe; Brinkley seems to portray a general spirit of defiance, while he acts out the narrator’s words as a problem child that the rest of the dancers keep in check. For instance, when he turns his head out of sync with the others, they reach over and wrench it back. Playing uniformity against chaos, the piece accelerates to a high-intensity ending, giving Banks’ confrontational voice the last word.

The unnamed second work takes a similar form, but a dramatic, original piano track by Guitron and the dancers’ shirt-and-tie uniforms raise the stakes. First, there’s the metronome-like repetition of a single piano note, gradually elaborated by other contra-rhythmic notes that take shape into an eerie melody. Dancers’ legato maneuvers are punctuated by frenetic, neurotic flurries. They mime calculation, distraction, finger-pointing, and overseeing. As the piano whirls fuller and more manic, dancers embody fatigue and neurosis, at turns sinking to the floor and scrabbling after something.

Like Exams, the piece shows periods of synchrony and outbursts of deviation, but compared to Exams, this work also explores more infighting. At one point, dancers in a tight cluster jostle each other as though moshing. I did wish the piano were performed live rather than played on a track, but one can imagine many logistical challenges to that approach. Maybe once the show moves from workshop to full performance mode, that’ll happen? Fingers crossed.

Between these two live works is Body Love, a film set to spoken word by Seattle musician Mary Lambert over a soundscape that sounds less like Lambert’s pop hit “She Keeps Me Warm” than like instru-experimentalists The Books. A recognizable screen cameo by Polaris’s M’Liss Stephenson ties the film in with the live pieces; even so, it feels less like part of a triptych than a passive interlude between two more active scenes. Lambert’s message is an essential one, decrying objectification and echoing most body-positive conversation, but it doesn’t seem to add new arguments or insight. The imagery (diagonal close-ups of dancers and nude flesh being pre-surgically marked) doesn’t quite cohere or enlighten, either. It’s Feminism 101: essential, but also basic. For new, surprising feminist rants, I prefer the linguistic twists of Lambert’s fellow Seattlite Lindy West—just as body-positive, but less prone to cliché.

Automal (opening night only)
Think Maxfield Parish, think Ghost of Christmas Past. Bearing lights, and wearing white, each dancer entered Automal’s Amends carrying a translucent basket of white tamari balls with glowing golden centers. First they used the objects for play, then proffered them as sacred offerings.

Their moves, softened extrapolations of African folk, were those of harvest, offering, and blessing, their arms often arching in moonish crescents. The music, too, was Afro-inspired but not African psychedelia (Animal Collective? Vampire Weekend? In that oeuvre.) Dancers played with the balls of light, rolling them, hopping over them, and eventually tearing some open and carefully balancing the LED candles from inside on choreographer Kate Rafter’s spine in what looked like a ritual of healing (hot wax?). Briefly, the dancers disbursed into the audience, each leading an audience member onto the stage, where Rafter bid them to mirror her tai-chi-like moves.

“Your computer died.” A sudden pronouncement from Guitron momentarily broke the spell as the music fell silent. Maybe he meant to be simple and direct, but the statement sounded accusatory and dire. Taking the three-foot walk to whisper in Rafter’s ear would’ve been more tactful; some creative show-saver like dancing onto the stage and handing off a light ball (with a discreet message) would’ve been ideal. Fortunately and amazingly, Rafter kept her poise, counting back in and singing the rest of the cut-off song a cappella. It might be time to hire a stage manager.

PDX Dance Collective (opening night only)
This company chose the most classical accompaniment of the evening: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—though they mentioned that it was modified, which from what I could tell meant “more reverb.” PDC’s choreography ran the gamut from ballet to modern, from fouetté turns and graceful partnering to splayed hands and angular shapes. Distinct lighting changes helped delineate each season, and dynamic choreography corresponded well with the score. In their brown blouses, the dancers looked like falling leaves.

During Spring, they danced in the round, as if clustered at a maypole, even perhaps quoting Rite of Spring with some ritual folk gestures. Summer brought a pas de deux of well-matched partners who traded the supporting role: when he swooned, she caught him, and vice-versa. A quickening flurry of solos ushered in Autumn, then another duet with two women, one of whom was left standing as the other rolled away. Winter brought the final crescendo, pulling the ensemble back into a circular folk formation, and the denouement that settled the dancers into a pile from which they drifted offstage one by one. The piece was nuanced, varied, and a nice blend of momentum and fluidity.

After opening night, Polaris proceeded into a packed weekend featuring Bridge City Dance Project’s tribute to the feminist movement, TripTheDark’s History set to 20(!) Portland bands, and the aerial dexterity of AWOL Dance, featuring their unique “aerial pole.” They’ll continue the run through next weekend with works from Collective Northwest and NW Fusion, a two-man duet from TopShakeDance, and a premiere from Beat Bangerz, a tap/hoofing fusion company.

Four years in, Groovin’ Greenhouse remains a hotbed of talent and experimentation.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Fertile Ground Review: ‘Heirloom’

Sub Rosa Dance is not to be taken lightly.

Certain elements of the human experience, beloved and necessary in real life, are too often dismissed or derided in post-modern art. For instance, try to show femininity, youth, sensuality, social commentary, or humor to seasoned contemporary dance connoisseurs, and just see what they say: “OB-vious,” they may drone. “Commercial,” they might hiss. (Which is to say, “appealing,” which is to imply, “appealing to the lowest common denominator.”)

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Such naysayers had better never step to Sub Rosa, whose members dance beautifully and subtly in all of these forbidden hues. In its latest piece, Heirloom, the dance collective proves it’s possible to be youthful without being childish, feminine without being frivolous, sensual without being exploitative, relevant without being preachy, and funny without being laughable. This young, pretty company is not to be taken lightly.

Heirloom, a part of the citywide Fertile Ground festival of new works, is a series of pieces devised from the dancers’ personal family histories, going back as many generations as they choose. But rather than explicitly re-create their stories, the collective seems to have mined each for just a few stimulating images and implications. It’s an authentic and unforced way to ensure variety in the program, and to coax dancers to emotionally invest. Not that Sub Rosa needed any coaxing; these performers are palpably, confrontationally present. They often let breaks between numbers go especially long as they stand onstage, gazing directly at the crowd, audibly breathing, conspicuously existing. Though their creations may be colorful, they’re wise to one modern minimalist truth: presence = performance. Anything else you do is extra.

Memorable moments from this program include (but are not limited to) Zahra Banzi and Kaylee McMurran’s duet Trussed with their hair braided together; Carlyn Hudson soft-shoeing in front of increasingly intense wartime footage in her dark-humored solo piece cROSSed; Tia Zapp Palomino’s tipsy choreography and Jessica Evans’ appropriately flopsy performance of drunk-dancing caricature Aunt Jan; guest choreographer Lindsey Mathies’s show-stealing Stand Tall, an exploration of all sides of masculinity from robot to cowpoke to warrior, danced by three men from OBT, NWDP and Reed respectively. Various video projections by Dylan Wilbur complement the works and make the show a richer feast for the senses, as does dynamic lighting from Tad Shannon.

And for fans of the inexplicable avant-garde, there’s also a little eye-candy: blanched footage of camels and backwards-animated pouring milk, maniacal laughter and splatted tomatoes. (If these symbols are “obvious”—it’s not obvious to me.)

An heirloom is prized because it’s been enriched by memory, handled with care, and crafted one-of-a-kind. And Sub Rosa’s new show qualifies. There are two remaining performances of Heirloom, on January 31 and February 1 at Clinton Street Theater.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Fertile Ground Review: 4×4=Musicals

Animals, dolls, and hammy humor = all-ages fun...with a dash of panache from the founder.

Last weekend, 4×4=Musicals had a cheeky kickoff, as curator Mark LaPierre summoned “dance translator” Lane Hunter to the stage to help with the opening announcements. Hunter promptly whipped off his pants and began pliéing and pantomiming to the crowd. But this was a mere shadow of the silliness to come.

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4×4, a group showcase in its third year, borrows its general premise from Ten Tiny Dances, a staple of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA-fest. The longer-running Ten Tinies confines each of its 10 dance pieces to a four-by-four-foot stage; 4×4 does the same thing with musicals. Apparently upping the ante from years past, 4×4 has also just begun to require dance elements in its shows.

Does this seem like a zany idea? The theatrical equivalent of frat boys packing into a phone booth? It’s supposed to seem that way, to draw your interest—but then it actually works out fine. In fact, if the 4×4 boundaries were expressed in drawn lines rather than a raised platform, you might not even notice their space constraint at all. Try taking a few pictures, and you may realize “Squeeze in!” is the real “Say cheese.” Our natural impulse for personal space often doesn’t fill a frame as well as an unnaturally cozy pose…and the same can be true in theater. Rather than a rare novelty, exercises like these could be a valuable way to get performers more comfortable with bunching a bit closer together. You rarely need the whole stage.

But wait, did somebody say “novelty?” Well, here come some talking, dancing sheep. And now, a singing cow. And then Santa’s four most sentient reindeer. In seven musicals, 4×4 trots out 8 animal characters and 2 dolls to its 16 humans (if you count 2 voices from offstage). Of the humans, there’s a pirate, and there are two über-rednecks, and four broadway-style show-people. All this to say, these caricatures are overwhelmingly playing it for laughs.

Guess what? They get them. From the get-go, James Sharinghousen earns a great cascade of giggle-snorts as a sheep named Pascal demonstrating the difference between “dancing” and “prancing” in Valory Lawrence and Kurt Misar’s Counting Sheep, Ashley Waldbauer inspires guffaws as a vengeance-bent ghost-cow in Bryce Earhart’s Mad Cow: the Moosical. Lisa Marie Harrison gets titters as a Fair Maiden seductively preening while tied up on a pirate ship; so does Alexandar Salazar as her flamboyant rescuer in William Gregory and Eric Norden’s The Pirate Thief.

Wendy Wallace and Paul Lewis’s Music Box seems to be sprinkled with Pixar dust. Like Toy Story, it has a kiddish premise, involiving toys, but manages to humanize its characters. The mechanized ballerina (Malia Tippets) and her partner (Sharinghousen) show tenderness and ennui as they face near-realistic dilemmas in their miniature world.

4×4 quickly takes shape as an enthralling kids’ show that I’ve no doubt my favorite 6- and 11-year-old would enjoy as much as I. I also can envision these cartoonish shows being spun into animated shorts—so clearly, in fact, that I mentioned that notion to NW Animation Festival director Sven Bonnichsen after the show. (Hey, content is the first hurdle, and too often the Achilles’ heel, of animation. The matchmaker in me sees possibilities there.)

Now. In any group show with a lot of cohesion, I can’t help but root hardest for (as Sesame Street puts it) “which[ever] of these kids is doing his own thing”—and here, the holdout for serious emotion is The Proposal. “Middle ground doesn’t work for me; I either do it or I don’t,” sings Megan Misslin as Kate, a would-be fiancee who’s about to give her man an ultimatum. Schuster, her tentative betrothed (played by Hunter) must stay in the small space with her without running away, which she’ll take as proof that he’s mastered an unnamed neurosis (most likely claustrophobia or PTSD). In a suspenseful, passionate, and at moments even anguished pas de deux, the man and woman grapple to a compromise. Hm, what have we here? Grown-up problems. Real-life feelings. Even a clever appropriation of the space constraints of the game, into the storyline.

Who can we thank for this one? LaPierre. Well done. The final number, Cruise Ship: The Disaster Musical, brings back humor, but continues the trend of referencing the showcase’s actual constraints to make the narrative more present. Four cruise ship lounge show-people (just like—and in fact, exactly—the evening’s singers and dancers) and one ordinary passenger are stranded together on a lifeboat (just like the 4×4 stage). They quickly realize that their showmanship skills don’t translate very well to matters of practical survival…UNTIL…the task is to get attention. By “activating their emergency sequins,” the frivolous show-folk save the day. And who made this winking showstopper? LaPierre again, with Diane Englert. Big bravo.

Curation is a gift in its own right, but I always appreciate when an event’s curator also directly demonstrates skill in the given medium. It’s clear that LaPierre’s leading 4×4 to new levels, not only by curation but by creative example.

Silly humor is great, and animal antics are fine…but here’s hoping more contributors will mature their material next year. Meanwhile, I’m comfortable recommending this year’s 4×4 to all-ages groups and families. If your kids can handle 1) the carnage of a cow becoming a hamburger, 2) the sleaze of a Beetlejuice-like spider 3) vague references to both homo- and hetero- sexuality, and 4) a bit of bathroom humor…these musical shorts will be just their size.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
Support Oregon ArtsWatch!