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Porn Shops, Swans and Much More: Portland’s Fertile Ground, Weekend One

01.26.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES directors, new plays, playwrights, theatre festivals

Armory mezzanine for Fertile Ground

The Armory mezzanine at Portland Center Stage, set up for Fertile Ground.

In Portland, or so they say, you can put a bird on it, and call it art.

The Fertile Ground new works festival isn’t exactly as the creators of Portlandia posit — I saw no clowns or artistic birds last weekend — but the 11-day explosion of playwriting, acting, dancing and more does have a mixed-genre, food-cart-and-Powell’s-loving, Portland feel. Fertile Ground’s a Portland Area Theatre Alliance-begun and sponsored event that I suspect has much to do with cheering up artists and art lovers who haven’t quite made it to the middle of the Pacific Northwest’s gray and wet winter.

The Oregonian‘s Marty Hughley, theatre critic for the paper since 2006, wrote a preview for the 2011 concantenation in which he said, “the festival offers a veritable buffet of creative endeavor from across the city’s performing arts scene.” Yes, and at a ton of venues, as well.

Hughley also said that “the festival’s spirit is loose and exploratory.” Indeed, indeed. I attended Fertile Ground last year and saw everything from painfully clichéd pieces to moving early readings to enjoyable fully staged premieres set in offbeat spaces (for those of you wondering, yes, Portland does have NON-offbeat spaces as well). But until I frantically tried to make this year’s schedule work with the packed evening slots, I’d forgotten last year’s scuttling from space to space as quickly as possible. With 68 performances, I knew I would miss a lot of things other people found amazing, see some unfortunate work and luck into some fine presentations.

The Portland Mercury‘s Alison Hallett wrote that “the phrase ‘uncurated performance festival’ strikes a teeny bit of fear into my heart.” Hallett was absolutely right to be afraid, but the shows aren’t expensive — readings run about $5, and many of the premieres even top out at $12 or $15, though a $50 all-access pass is by far the best deal — and they’re often not lengthy, either.

I live in Eugene, a 2-hour (or so) drive from Portland, and I took off for the bright lights and the big city on Friday afternoon with a plan to see as many shows as I could handle. Because the vaunted 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan was sold out on Friday (I have tickets for this week!), I went to Porn Shop!!! instead.

Amusingly, I was one of only two or three people by themselves. Lots of couples with their game faces on. One by-himself guy seemed uncomfortably eager to watch the show and enjoy the show’s set — a wide array of DVDs, leather-and-chain-dressed mannequins, the usual dildo display and a perfectly placed shelf with the world’s greatest variety of lube. Luckily, the theatre’s AD reminded everyone in the curtain speech not to touch the set at intermission. “You wouldn’t want people breaking into your house to play with your sex toys, would you?” she asked. Um, ick, thanks for that.

Porn Shop!!! wanted to be clever, funny, a bit absurd (David Duchovny’s a key character) and sorta meaningful. I did laugh occasionally, but both the script and the acting fell flat, and I mean that as non-punnily as possible. Many of the tentative laughs came at the beginning, when two characters discussed whether superheroes were gay, thus combining two Portland tropes: porn and comics. But really, is anyone confused about Batman at this point? The goofy plot (with a love story wrapped inside of it) might have been redeemed by a solid cast and some understated performances, but alas, that was not in the cards for the evening.

Captured by Aliens_photo credit Gary Norman

Captured by Aliens! image by Gary Norman

Moving from that show to the 10:30 pm Action Adventure Theatre show Captured by Aliens! was fascinating. The crowd outside of Captured! was drinking beer, relaxed,  hipsterish/nerdy. I wondered how many people who saw Buffy alum Tom Lenk perform his stand-up routine in August (too long, but brilliantly, muscle-pullingly, laugh out loud so long you can’t make noise anymore funny) were also at Captured!

Count me among the SF crowd. Captured! had nerd appeal written all over it, but it also looked like it could have nerd-mocking appeal. Who could resist? The premise: Aliens have captured 6 earthlings so that they can learn about human behavior by means of a reality show. The show runs for four weeks, and I’m assuming the fourth week will reveal who wins “Best Human Ever!” and if any of the humans survive.

Captured! was simply delightful, even for someone whose experience of reality shows came from a few 2001 episodes  Temptation Island back when she was dating someone who had cable. The actors, who perfectly nailed backstabbing, alliance-forming, confessing-to-the-TV contestants, and the so silly they were glorious alien puppets, interacted and reacted so well that I could hardly tell what parts were improvised with their guest star (this week it was Margie Boulé, who provided a good many laughs as a beauty pageant consultant). I left there with mood much improved, and I’m HELL OF JEALOUS of everyone who’s going to the next three weeks of Captured! I *might* be able to squeeze it in next weekend. And you have to admit that this is a diabolically clever theater plan, especially if you can pack people in the first weekend.

I saw three more shows on Saturday and one on Sunday, all readings. I’ll give the highlights here, because the lowlight was so bad I don’t ever want to think about it again ever (I’ll sacrifice just enough to give you this short description: Two older white men Yelling! Their! Liberal! Or! Radical! Thoughts! At! Each! Other! A LOT! FOR HOURS! And there’s a GUN!).

BaseRoots Theatre, a recently founded company, mounted a reading of a new play called The Green Book. The play, set in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1957, relied heavily on research, with some monologues getting a bit preachy. However, the cast — who had to read the show in the middle of a functioning, working restaurant — dealt for the most part beautifully with the script’s longeurs. As a Missourian by birth who knows that Central Missouri still gets called “Little Dixie,” I nodded in recognition several times, and a white man who had survived Polish concentration camps made me think a lot more about what people feel they owe liberators. Finally, the contrast between “race men” and an African-American businessman anticipated the Civil Rights Movement, as did the plans of an 18-year-old girl to go to college in Greensboro, N.C. The strong voice of Emmett Wheatfall and the excellent acting of Kimberly Howard, formerly with Sojourn Theatre and now trust manager for the Oregon Cultural Trust, anchored the uneven but important show, which unfortunately only had two readings. (Look for an interview with BaseRoots Theatre’s founder pretty soon!)

In Portland Center Stage’s Armory, on the Mezzanine level, I saw a few of the many “Down & Dirty at 12:30” Lunch Readings. The space is weird (see photo above); people coming in for the matinee make far too much noise downstairs (I wished for far more draconian shushings, but after all, those folks paid more than the $5 for the reading … but the noise was terrible, and terribly distracting, on Sunday), and if you don’t rush the stairs, you find yourself sitting too far back to see much. But John Servilio’s All Together, in which Jana Lee Hamblin (I believe; I lost this program like a fool, and there’s no info online; checking ASAP) played an elderly Audrey Munson telling her own story, pretty much rocked it despite the horrible sound quality. That’s because Hamblin was a force of nature from start to finish, holding the audience with her knowing, half-mocking, mostly seductive gaze. Her hands by themselves provided a master class for any other actors in the audience.

I couldn’t hear everything thanks to those selfish matinee folks (I’m joking, but it truly is a problem), but otherwise this was a wonderful way to wrap up the first weekend.

This weekend, I head back on Thursday, and I have plans to see Claire Willett (interview by the indefatigable Adam Szymkowicz here) and Gilberto Martin del Campo’s That Was the River; This Is the Sea; the almost universally praised My Mind is Like an Open Meadow with Erin Leddy of Hand2Mouth Theatre; the aforementioned 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan by playwright Kim Rosenstock (link to Adam’s blog *again* — he’s everywhere!); Robin Hood because … um … why the hell not? It’s a WORLD PREMIERE, after all!; Mr. Darcy Dream Boat, which Hughley liked a lot; a bunch of readings and maybe some dance (not my strong suit).

I will attempt more frequent and shorter postings! Also, even though she is legend AND a co-director of Fertile Ground AND a 2amtheatre blogger, I have never met Ms. Tricia Mead. Perhaps we will remedy that next weekend, when she’s all #newplay‘d out …

Suzi Steffen

Suzi Steffen served as the performing and visual arts editor for the Eugene (Oregon) Weekly for nearly five years. She's freelanced for Stage Directions Magazine, the Oregonian and many other publications, and she's now working on an arts journalism site that will cover all 36 counties in Oregon (plus a few counties in neighboring states). She lives in Eugene but loves Portland almost as much as the New York Times does.

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