Portland's 8th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 1

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 2, 2016

Portland's Fertile Ground Festival, a celebration of original works from Portland artists and actors and creators, just wrapped up on Sunday. It was a 10-day whirlwind of shows from fully staged productions to spare readings of new plays. The variety made it difficult to choose, so I narrowed down my selections to plays by underrepresented voices; people of color, community or neighborhood productions, and women.

"Broken Promises" at Milagro Theater was precisely the kind of storytelling I hoped to see, a discussion of the reality not often examined in traditional theatre. A joint production with Planned Parenthood, "Broken Promises" focuses on four Latino high schoolers looking for their way out of the life of poverty that seems to be their destiny.

In dialogue that moves fluidly between Spanish and English, the story moves quickly from introduction to central conflict; a young woman who follows a path of seemingly easy money and becomes hopelessly ensnared in sex slavery. Without flinching, without pulling punches, "Broken Promises" delivers the painful truth about pervasive income inequality, and provides a view into the perpetual struggle faced by many segments of our population. Well acted and well written, "Broken Promises" deserves a wider audience.

"Frankenstein: A Cabaret" caught my attention early, as the thought of a musical/comedy/humorous staging of the famous story was intriguing. It's in a small space on a small stage -- too small to contain its big ideas. From the moment you arrive at the east-side industrial area theatre, queuing up next to an over-full dumpster, to the awkward seating arrangements squeezed into a space that attempts to include a full bar, a stage with a mountain peak, a six-piece band, and a twelve-person cast, the event feels congested, packed.

An ambitious performance aiming to dissect historical constructs around the feminine, creativity, transformation and desire adds to the confinement. It's a boisterous show, humorous and thoughtful, that grabs threads from multiple and diverse trains of thought and attempts to weave them into a cohesive whole.

Unfortunately, what results is rather like Frankenstein: a creation that has neither beauty nor intelligence, and in its lack of congruence, is rather off-putting. I applaud the moments of insight and beauty, some curiously haunting original music, and strong and memorable performances. But the show needs an editor, STAT.

A late addition to my calendar was a workshop by Box of Clowns, presenting "The Mustache Party: The Salvador Dali Show." It was my first surrealist clown show, and as an initiation into a world I never knew existed, it was baffling, humorous, curious, and amusing. For a bunch of clowns feting a genius artist, the show was remarkably un-self-important.

It was like watching a production by eight-year-olds in the backyard, kids striving to make connections between their childlike wonder and big important themes of existence, and watching them play was at once delightful and thought-provoking. As little as I know about Dali, I can only surmise that the playfulness combined with existential themes strikes precisely on his raison d'etre.

Rogue Pack, Young Portland Speaks brought meaning to the whole festival for me. Their performance of "Bob: #MiddleSchool #Tweensandteens," which was #writtenbyportlandyouth and performed by kids in middle school and high school, was the raw material from which theatre festivals are created. The desire to tell our stories, to find our own voice in the crowd of voices, and the willingness to take the risk and share those stories with an audience of strangers is most evident in these young people.

From foster homes to abandonment, the stories gave insight into their very present pain and experiences. A number of the young performers admitted later to wanting to become writers or actors, and I hope they do. I want to hear more from them. The world needs voices like theirs: strong, injured but determined, unusual. Please keep creating, kids.

From storytelling to storytelling, this time a tale of an exploration to the South Pole. "Shackleton, The Untold Story," created and told by Lawrence Howard of the Portland Story Theater, was a gripping tale told by a single storyteller over two hours and fifteen minutes. Howard, a lifelong scholar of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, presented the supplemental story of the Ross Sea Party, whose task was approaching Antarctica from the other side, setting caches of supplies across the continent for Shackleton's crew to use as they traversed Antarctica.

As these things happen in the frozen seas, both Shackleton's party and the Ross Sea party encountered horrible and extreme conditions, leading to the abject failure of both their attempts. For two hours, a packed house of 200-plus people of all ages listened in rapt attention to the detailed, well-researched story unfold of exploration and determination in the face of certain death. I felt like I would never be warm again.

Howard is a master storyteller, and told of his post-cancer-treatment realization that he must complete his dream of telling the rest of the Shackleton story while he still could, before the chance slipped away. He was another reminder of the importance of finding your voice and sharing stories that are important, even if you think they're only important to you. It was a powerful performance, an evening recalling the oral tradition of community entertainment, and I will never forget it.

From spoken stories to wordless expression of our shared humanity, our next event was "Between Worlds" by Echo Theater. This was another first for me, seeing aerial and circus arts, and it was sheer magic. The performers bring such strength and grace to bear in the process of storytelling that the overall effect is hypnotic. To a person, the performance was flawless. Comprising three companies, each with its own performance, "Between Worlds" was thrilling and exciting and I wish I could go see it again right now.

Briefly, the presentations were a cautionary tale about the seven deadly sins (who knew Sloth could be so beautiful?); a fantasy about a "Superhero Old Folks Home" (my husband and I both cried at the Aquavelvet ghost haunting her dying husband); and "Hero's Journey" by Tempos Circus, an acrobatic-dance performance of astounding strength and balance. The lines between traditional ballet and acrobatics/aerial arts are beautifully blurred.

And thanks to the "Superhero Old Folks Home," I may never want to see another opera if it doesn't include an aerial aria.

Capping off my week of performances was "The New Vaudeville," by Elaborate Alibi Theater Company, featuring The Affable Gentlemen. I was psyched about this, as I've never seen a vaudeville show and my husband is a big fan. Go figure. Alexander, Master of Marvels, provided my first experience with a magician, and I was (predictably) entranced. I like to think I can reason things out, but after the first two sleight of hand, I just gave in and watched, mesmerized.

The pacing of the show was haphazard, though the troupe gave a fine effort at staying in character throughout. I found that the storytelling episodes slowed the momentum of the evening, and brought the tenor of the room down from lighthearted fanciful entertainment to ponderous, overly long tales of woe. More comedy, please! The Famous Haydell sisters delivered on bawdiness and charm. Staging this at the vaunted Clinton Street Theater was a marvelous idea, but the show itself needs to be tightened, more brisk.

The Fertile Ground festival is a chance for unknowns and lesser-knowns to have their shows produced, promoted, and seen. There were many, many more shows I wanted to see than I could physically attend, and I look forward to the chance next year to pick a whole new set of new material to watch.

It's exciting to see some variety in Portland theatre, particularly at a time when the city is considering its arts future. Our city's strength is in its diversity, and we would be well advised to nurture and encourage new and emerging artists. Fertile Ground is a marvelous demonstration of our city's artistic depth.

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.