gary strong

4X4 review: quality quartet

PDX Playwrights' Fertile Ground showcase presents diverse selection of short takes

An agitated, hooded man angrily approaches a Transportation Security Administration agent at an airport security station, demanding to know what they’re doing to his son. Violence seems likely to erupt any moment.

That was the arresting opener of Contraband, the opening play in Fertile Ground‘s 4X4: a Collection of One Acts. Produced by PDX Playwrights, the local reading group whose many contributions to the annual showcase of new works amounted to a festival within a festival, the four short one-acts performed at Portland’s Hipbone Studios demonstrated the group’s eclectic variety of theatrical approaches. This creative generator (whose meetings I attend) makes a fine pairing with Fertile Ground’s annual performing arts incubator.

Tom Wiitherspoon and Jonathan Wexler (or is it the other way around?) in ‘Steve and Steve,’ at PDX Playwrights 4×4: A Collection of One Acts. Photo: Charlie Latourette.

As Contraband’s tense encounter continued, a TSA supervisor joined in, until the low-level agent was able to find enough common ground to get the dad conversing instead of confronting. As Karen Polinsky’s play progressed, with the guard mediating between the father and the higher level TSA bureaucrat, we learn that the dad’s obnoxiousness really arises from fear — not just about the incident that landed his son in lockup, but about the boy’s differentness, and more.

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Theater review: A poignant ‘Private Lives’

Director Scott Palmer goes past the fluff to Noel Coward's dark center

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as Amanda and Adam Syron as Elyot in Private Lives. Photo:

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as Amanda and Adam Syron as Elyot in Private Lives. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Amanda and Elyot can’t live together, but they can’t stay apart, as Joe Jackson once sang. The divorced couple remarry other partners — and find themselves honeymooning next door to their also-just-remarried partners. We’re all set for a laugh riot, right? And eventually, we know (from lighter Shakespearean comedies to Astaire and Rodgers films on down), the estranged partners will discover they really love each other, reunite and live happily after ever, blackout.

That’s what happens in Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece Private Lives, all right. But all that happens in the first act … and there are two more to go.

Where Coward takes us next isn’t at all what we’d expect, particularly from a playwright with a reputation for wryness rather than rage, and (by modern standards) superficiality more than psychological depth. Which makes Private Lives‘s ultimate destination — messy, painful reality rather than bubbly wishful thinking — all the more surprising, even 80 years later, when we inhabitants of the age of snark think we know all about puncturing ideals.

And that’s why Bag and Baggage Theater’s unexpectedly poignant production of Coward’s “intimate comedy,” which ends this coming weekend, has as much to offer today’s relationships as it did our great grandparents. Despite the period setting, the story feels so modern, I can imagine a staging conducted entirely in text messages.

I can also imagine one that plays up the withering Coward wit and its unlikable protagonists’ sarcasm. But instead, director Scott Palmer unflinchingly looks beyond the cynical humor and into the very dark and real flaws that real people in real relationships harbor, and which ultimately keep couples that we imagine would be perfect for each other apart. It’s a Private Lives for the post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf generations.

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