LineStorm Playwrights

Days of Fezziwig past

Fertile Ground 2021: An overlooked character from "A Christmas Carol" gets his close-up in "Fezziwig’s Fortune"

Fezziwig’s Fortune is technically a prequel to A Christmas Carol, but that description is both accurate and inadequate. The play – which was written by Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi and is being featured in Fertile Ground‘s 2021 online festival of new performance – is something more: an intensely moving portrait of a grieving father and the forces (supernatural and otherwise) that reveal the possibilities beyond his pain.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


In A Christmas Carol, Fezziwig is Ebenezer Scrooge’s ex-mentor—and a model for him to emulate (Charles Dickens presents him as a man who hasn’t let his cash eclipse his heart). “Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then?” Scrooge wonders. “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

The premise of Fezziwig’s Fortune is perfect and perverse: It asks what agonies might lie behind its protagonist’s ebullient exterior. By the beginning of the play, Fezziwig (James Dixon) has witnessed the death of his daughter Joy (Barbie Wu) and the worsening headaches of his wife, Catherine (Nicole Accuardi). When an apparition named Hope (Andrea White) arrives to prepare Catherine for the next life, the scope of Fezziwig’s tragic existence comes into focus: He will be forced to endure a second loss when he hasn’t even begun to recover from the first.

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Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

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A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.

What?

Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .

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December notes: A world apart

Reality and fantasy mingle and pull apart and mingle on a Portland stage and Portland galleries

It is late afternoon on Monday, December 9, and the TriMet bus is packed when you board it. Packed largely with 14 or 15-ish teenagers, cleancut, perhaps from a private or a special school as one or two get off at every other stop for the length of the southbound bus route. The teens jabber back and forth all around you, the whole extent of your ride. Even the busdriver seems infatuated by the joyful atmosphere, telling two jokes. One you don’t catch, but the other goes something like this:

What do you call a cat that you find at the beach at Christmas?

The kids are quick, and call out a couple possibilities. When these die by the wayside, the driver milks the moment a little longer then answers.

Sandy claws.

This answer gets a general laugh and a couple groans, then a chorus of thank-you’s to the busdriver. The kids almost immediately returning to their contrapuntal, back-and-forth jabber, which streams like vapor trails above and around you.

No, I can’t access that site on my phone anymore.

The girl in the seat next to you calls to the boy seated just behind the busdriver. The boy wonders aloud at where the problem is.

My parents changed the password.

She explains.

Set your phone’s clock back to before when they changed it.

He tells her, logically.

I tried.

She says. She’s no idiot.

They blocked that.

The boy nods, pondering.

Talk to Philip. He knows how to get around this.

He advises her.

Which Philip? Philip Teemiter? . . .

And on to other jabber, flying in from some other direction.

The teen world is a world apart from that of their parents. A cozy reality providing a natural-seeming and idyllic sense of belonging.

Laura Berger, “Find Yourself Here”/Image courtesy of Stephanie Chefas Projects

Your mother’s cousin is married to a University of Minnesota professor, Ernest Bormann—a major figure in the fields of Communication Theory and the Theory of Rhetoric (see The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream). When Sigmund Freud talks about a “fantasy,” he is talking about how the psyche talks to itself. Bormann applies this idea of fantasy instead to cohesive groups of people, who construct between them an effective group-lingua which highlights values and ideas important to them. He describes this group private-language as a symbolic convergence or a fantasy. Everyone on the same wavelength, singing the same tune.

But is this self-assured sense of belonging a luxury everyone shares in?

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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