Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 2
With all the troubling events going on nationwide, I didn't feel much like going to see plays this week, but Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival kept me hopping. I was glad for the intellectual engagement and the reminder that it is in sharing our stories and being vulnerable that we remove the walls that keep us separate. By creating and sharing art, we learn to understand each other and become more connected. And right now, that connection is everything.
I chose shows from underrepresented voices, from people on the margins, because I think it's important, especially now, to amplify their stories. From a staged reading of a play about a teenager figuring out how to make friends to a monologue of an adult woman recounting her journey to being an actress, almost every show reflected one thought: connection happens when you're honest with yourself and other people about who you are.
"1980s Teen Musical" was workshopped this week, with 24 actors and four musicians onstage. This is an intelligent and fun story of an isolated junior (Samantha) in high school who wants desperately to escape her life and go live in France for a year. Her mother makes her a deal: if Samantha can make friends with every student in school, she can go to France.
The show is the process of Samantha making friends with her school and the ups and downs of social interaction. There are some ragged moments in the play, and some of the songs need work, but by and large, this is a good musical.
The part of Samantha is new and different in musicals, and that's interesting. She becomes close friends with a group of geeky boys who are central to the plot, and that's also interesting. The music is an homage to '80s tunes, in some places lifting whole riffs from songs like "Sunglasses at Night" and "Borderline," but that borrowing is done remarkably well.
The enormous cast was very good, with great comic delivery from Brendan Long, William Duff and Carson Walker (the Real Genius Nerds), and probably the coolest mom to ever show up in a musical played by Lisamarie Harrison, who has a great rock and roll voice and spectacular dramatic delivery. And watch for the name Amy Martin, who played Samantha. This girl has serious talent, both as an actress and a singer. "1980s Teen Musical" has some kinks to work out, but I'd be curious to see a staged production.
Jane Comer brought her monologue "I Am An Actress" to the Festival, a tender and personal story of her mother's challenging life and her own rocky upbringing. Comer uses music, a slideshow, and oral history to bring this story to life.
This piece was also being workshopped, and as a work of theater, it's still a little rough in spots, but the moments of raw honesty and insight are quite moving. It almost felt like two separate stories, that of Jane and her mother, albeit joined by Jane's birth, and I would love to see her mother's story expand and become a show of its own. Comer is a person of warmth and kindness, and her love for her work and the people in her world drew me in.
In this week-long glow of human kindness was dropped a show that was an unpleasant surprise. "Men Run Amok (or It Takes Balls)" a three-plays-in-one workshop, ostensibly explored men's flaws in our enlightened world. To a play, however, the show demonstrated a lack of real comprehension, and was thuddingly inappropriate in places where it purported to be showing dawning realizations.
The first play was about two brothers, one straight and the other gay, who are not close as kids, and eventually find some common ground. The conventions of "straight" and "gay" that they used were so shallow and haggard they were meaningless.
I was most astonished at the second, a short play based in Asia, with its unabashed Asian stereotypes, and confused and meandering monologues about the pressures of capitalism.
The final play was an odd pastiche of improv and lecture about how men should behave. Two performers stood out in the three plays; Mario Galeano (as a narrator/tightrope walker) and Kate Rogers (as a male Asian bartender). But the effect of three plays centering on white males who still don't get it was exhausting. I give them credit for the attempt but would encourage the writers to listen more.
Fertile Ground Festival shows played on stages all over Portland. There were too many great offerings to see them all, but I have a couple more reviews lined up. Watch this space.
Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival ran through January 29 at assorted venues throughout the city. For information, visit http://fertilegroundpdx.org/2017-works/