Sara Fay Goldman

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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No fool like an old fool

Milagro rediscovers a long-lost comedy from 18th century Mexico and takes it for a brash and funny 21st century spin in commedia clothing

The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.

I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal. Molière, whose plays Astucias resembles more than a little, added structure and witty verse dialogue and transferred the action to the French upper and aspiring classes. Even some of Shakespeare’s early plays, like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by commedia, and the old English Punch & Judy shows were commedia on a puppet platform. The form’s influence lives on in some of our best situation comedies, like the crisply stylized and brilliantly exaggerated Frasier.

Back row, from left: Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston, Marian Méndez. Front, from left: Carlos Adrián Manzano, Vorónika Nuñez, Enrique Andrade, Yan Collazo, Sara Fay Goldman. Photo: Russell J Young

Astucias por heredar has a pretty preposterous, and true, history of its own. Though it’s set in Madrid, it was one of the early plays written in the New World: Reygadas was a Spanish poet, playwright, astronomer and mining specialist (his true bread and butter) who emigrated to Mexico in the 1780s and remained a prominent figure there for the rest of his life. He wrote Astucias in 1789 and submitted it to the censorship board in Mexico City, where, the following year, a Father Ramón de Rincón denied permission for it to be performed, because, well, that’s what censors do (cue the current semi-official campaign in the United States to muzzle the free press). The good priest possibly considered the play dangerous because the rich old uncle is a lecher and a fool; the women and the servants contrive his comeuppance, thus endangering the stability of class and male privilege; severe flirting and bawdy suggestion occur; and, well, you know: it might undermine the Natural Order of Things. In other words, comedy.

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‘Human Noise’: Music in Carver Land

Imago Theatre's choreographed take on Raymond Carver short stories may activate your interpretive juices

“Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow.”

That’s how Raymond Carver’s 1970 story “Neighbors” begins, and that’s exactly how Imago’s version of the story in “Human Noise” begins, too, with the narration. Also with Nathan Wonder, Danielle Vermette, Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle on stage, the bare outlines of two apartments, and a percussive score (Kyle Delamarter is the sound designer) in the background.

Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle in “Human Noise” at Imago Theatre/Photo by Jerry Mouawad

Streeter and Triffle take over the narration and dialogue after their neighbors in the story, Wonder and Vermette, leave on vacation, reciting Carver’s words, punctuated by the odd fling of the arm when a sudden, loud percussion cue demands it. The story turns weird: Bill goes over to his neighbors’ apartment to feed their cat, and alone in that space, he starts to explore. “The air was already heavy and it was vaguely sweet.” He tends to kitty, then opens the liquor cabinet and takes a couple of pulls from a bottle of Chivas Regal (an imaginary bottle, actually). When he returns to Arlene, he finds himself in an amorous mood.

“What kept you?” Arlene said. She sat with her legs turned under her, watching television.

“Nothing. Playing with Kitty,” he said, and went over to her and touched her breasts.

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… and oddly, as a pitched political battle sweeps the nation, life goes on. How will the arts world respond to the extraordinary events of the day? How, if at all, will this most divisive and pugilistic of administrations respond to the world of art? Shoes could drop at any moment: the administration has already stated its intent to kill the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and to end federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While Nero threatens to cut off the fiddles, here are a few highlights of what’s going on in and around town.

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IT’S FIRST THURSDAY this week, when many galleries open their new monthly shows, so visual art is on our minds. The Portland Art Museum has opened Rodin: The Human Experience, a major show of 52 bronzes, and Constructing Identity, an important overview of historical and contemporary work by African American artists.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And the invaluable Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem has opened Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, a retrospective on the late Oregon artist, who Paul Sutinen, in his ArtsWatch review of the show, identifies as a key figure in the city’s cultural life, the catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art. “It is an important show,” Sutinen declares. “It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And then he explains why. See the sort of thing that the Savonarolas of the federal purse are eager to upend.

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Broken tulips, tethered lines

Sara Fay Goldman's solo show "Tether" at Fertile Ground illustrates the beauty and sorrow of ADD

Sara Fay Goldman’s Tether: A One-Woman Anti-Circus about Brain Chemistry is listed in the 2017 Fertile Ground guide as a work in progress. Artists always struggle with where the perfect ending points are in a work and Goldman may have elaborate ideas on how to expand her show, but Tether, directed by Rusty Tennant, is a dynamic, well composed, seemingly complete performance as it stands that champions those beautiful humans who aren’t neurotypical.

You may have seen a BBC television show hosted by science historian James Burke called Connections. In one episode he takes you on a journey showing how the Little Ice Age in medieval times led to the invention of chimneys, buttons, waistcoats, and wall tapestries, and from there guides you into the 20th century, showing how little advances in technology led to gasoline engines. It’s in these mental bridges that Burke connects the dots between what seems improbable or dissimilar, and illustrates the ripple effect of history and human ideas, exposing the corners where they touch.

Sara Fay Goldman in “Tether.” Photo: Myrrh Larsen

Goldman moves in similar mental circles, using a hyper-ecstasy, a touch of pain from alienation, the art of acrobatics, performance art, and some delicious monologues. She’s been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and Tether is an intimate portrait of her interior life. In Act I she’s the red-nosed Auguste clown who scrolls out a rapid-fire dialogue, jumping from one quote to the next. Digging into Cartesian ideas about being, piecing those reflections with a reference to Alvin Lucier’s famous study in stuttering I am Sitting in a Room, jumping to a monologue by Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, referring to Bottom’s involvement with the juice of a rare flower in the play, then puzzle-piecing it to the Tulip Wars of 1637, Goldman props herself onto a soapbox about the British colonizers’ approach to botany and ends with the dull irony of scientific watercolor reproductions of cataloged species hanging for display in hipster bars. It’s a high-flying and exquisite execution of how creative cognition’s roller-coaster ride turns and twists at high speeds from the inside out.

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