The Wonders of Wonderland

Portland Playhouse closes the curtains on 2020 with an epic virtual theater festival. We talk with the people who created it.

Ashley Mellinger scripted a witty conversation between two webcam models. Fyndi Jermany crafted a category-defying musical experience. Kailey Rhodes unleashed a meditation on the role of blame in myth and life. Francisco Garcia told a tale of two sisters who are casualties of the Trump Administration’s barbarous family separations.

Mellinger, Jermany, Rhodes and Garcia are the creators of the four new plays that form Wonderland, a virtual theater festival from Portland Playhouse that runs through January 19. Each work mirrors our damaged and divided world (Mellinger says the artists were asked for reflections of “our sociopolitical landscape”). Yet the ways that the plays boldly leap across space, time and genre remind you that while COVID-19 has shaken Portland’s theatre community, it hasn’t shattered it.

Wonderland was born of an army of innovators led by producer Charles Grant and populated by multitudes, including the main creators of the festival’s selections. I spoke to all four of them about the art of creating brazen and beautiful theater in 2020.


FRANCISCO GARCIA, 545


The title 545 refers to the number of migrant children separated from their families by the Trump Administration as of October (by December, it had risen to 666). With actors Lulu Kashiwabara and Mila Kashiwabara (who are sisters), Francisco Garcia fought to convey the human toll behind that statistic with a tale of two siblings who are imprisoned and taken from their mother.

Lulu Kashiwabara (lef and Mila Kashiwabara in Francisco Garcia’s “545.” Photo: Kirk Johnson

How long did you have to write the play?

I think I did about three drafts. When I found out [that Lulu Kashiwabara and Mila Kashiwabara] could do the show, I started building the show around them. I sent them questionnaires to fill out so we could build upon their relationship and so I could find out about their backgrounds more, and a lot of that stuff was incorporated into the show.

What were some of the details that you ended up using?

There’s a detail where the younger sister talks about how much she misses her stuffed animal and that it’s so hard to sleep not having her stuffed animal there anymore. And that came from a questionnaire asking both of them if they had any personal items that were really important to them. The stuffed animal’s name was Carrots—it’s a bunny—and I incorporated that detail into the show.

Do you see 545 as a call to action?

When I watched the first cut of the show after we recorded it, I really just felt blown away and touched by the beautiful work that the two girls did, in terms of connecting to the material and giving these really truthful performances. My hope is that when someone sees the show, they’ll see that these things are happening and that it’s not okay.

When you directed Milagro’s Swimming While Drowning, an interviewer asked you if there was a color you felt represented the play. Is there a color you would pick to represent 545?

The immediate color that comes to me is blue. To me, at least, it’s a very emotional color. It has sadness in it, but then there’s also comfort in it as well—and in a way, I find hope in blue. Does that make sense?


FYNDI JERMANY, Catharsis


Fyndi Jermany has called herself an “upcoming artist,” but if the ambition of Catharsis is any indication, she has fully arrived. A pastiche of musical genres that confronts classism, racism, sexism and community violence, it’s a piece that harnesses her talents as both a writer and a performer.

Fyndi Jermany in her “Catharsis.” Photo: Charles Grant.

Could you describe Catharsis?

I would describe it as a three-part music video. It’s a combined musical/music video that talks about identity, religion, violence, which are all things that aren’t new.

Could you talk about the idea of community violence a bit more?

One of the opening lyrics [in Catharsis] is: “He shot him/He beats her/He rapes them/And she concurs.” I grew up in poverty, seeing how normalized violence is—and not knowing that some of these things that are “normal” for many of us growing up in these situations are totally outrageous for other people.

People getting shot, people getting raped—these sound like obvious things that would cause alarm, but there are so many people that I know and so many people that I grew up with…there are so many stories where people were just taught to be quiet and don’t talk about it. And what I’m hoping to do is get people to say, “Wait a minute, there are some issues that we need to talk about within our families, within our communities.”

Could you talk about the style of the music?

I created some instrumentals for the first act. And for the last act, I’m singing, and it’s almost Broadway-ish. That’s how act three ends, and it’s quite a shift from act two, when I’m hardcore rapping.


ASHLEY MELLINGER, Private Chat


When Ashley Mellinger was in her early twenties, she was a webcam model (she quit after being promoted at the New York wine bar where she worked). In Private Chat, she revisits her camming days, pulling double duty as both playwright and actor (she plays a struggling cam model who gets schooled by a seasoned pro).

Ashley Mellinger (left) and Treasure Lunan in Mellinger’s “Private Chat.” Photos: Liz Moughon

Could you start by describing Private Chat and how you came up with the idea?

I met my co-star in Private Chat, Treasure Lunan, a couple years ago when we worked on a project together, and then we became really good friends. Through our friendship and hanging out with each other, we both discovered that we had been sex workers in a past life. We had both been cam models and worked in that industry.

I hadn’t really seen any portrayals of sex workers’ stories that weren’t steeped in darkness and drama and trauma and pain. I wanted to write a short piece about two people in the wild, who are having a regular day in the office.

Which character do you play and what character does Treasure play?

I play a character named SnuggBuddyxx and Treasure plays EnbyMilf420. Our characters are both only known by their screen names. The whole premise is that [SnuggBuddy] is trying to bump up her ranking as a performer, so she decides to purchase some time with the top-ranked performer, who happens to be the character played by Treasure.

I don’t think SnuggBuddy has completely divorced herself from this stigma that surrounds sex work. She doesn’t totally see it as a legitimate profession, so in that sense she has a little bit of a growth arc over the course of the story.

Did that arc correspond to conversations you’d had with other people or conversations you’d had with yourself?

It’s not a conversation I have often enough because people get really awkward and uncomfortable talking about sex work for whatever reason. So hopefully, this will be a fun, light way of starting those dialogues.


KAILEY RHODES, The Mythology of Blame


Shaming through the ages is the subject of Kailey Rhodes’ The Mythology of Blame. Faced with constructing a story that could connect vilified women of legend like Eve and Pandora with their twenty-first century counterparts, Rhodes recruited four artists—Tyharra Cozier, Kisha Jarrett, Claire Rigsby and Andrea Vernae—to add new narrative elements to her vast vision.

Claire Rigsby in Kailey Rhodes’s “The Mythology of Blame.” Still from film by Tamera Lyn.

Tell me about the origin of the project and how you came up with the idea.

There is a painting by Henry Fuseli called The Nightmare. It’s this painting of a woman on her back and there’s a gargoyle near her—and it’s basically to represent incubi and succubi and how they’re these demons that people believe visit you at night and take out all of your energy with sexual exploits. And I just thought it was so fascinating that we externalize a lot of the reasons we are human and place the blame somewhere else. The idea of exploring that through five different voices was the initial impetus of the project.

It doesn’t have a director. It has five points of view, and even a sixth, because our videographer and editor, Tamera Lyn, is a perspective in and of herself. It’s six women talking about blame and exploring themes of femininity and anger and sexuality and acceptance and belonging and accountability and peace.

Did you feel like you learned new things from your collaborators about blame and how it affects people?

Yes! One of the big things that changed was I really was fixated on myth, legend, folklore, and where we see blame and how that affects us—and how we blame, not just women or not just each other, but whole groups of people. And then when we got together and started writing, so much of our individual selves poured out.  

Did it become a less abstract thing and come back more to the specifics of your own lives?

No, I think it almost got more abstract. It’s easy to talk about a myth in concrete terms, but when we talked about ourselves—“When do we blame ourselves? And when do we blame each other? And when do we hold each other accountable? And when do we take power back?”—it became a little bit more abstract, because we don’t have the answers to [those questions].

I’m so grateful to my collaborators for saying yes to me and then giving themselves so fully, especially in this year. When we came together and got to move together—six feet apart, in masks, not touching—it gave me this intimacy that we all realized we were experiencing, and that was just extraordinarily joyful.

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About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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