Think of the Fertile Ground Festival, now in its ninth year, as an 11-day buffet of new, locally produced performance. With fully staged world premieres running alongside bare-bones readings and very-much-in-progress workshop productions, things range from refined to very, very raw. That's part of the deliciousness (and chaos) of it—but also what can make the festival a beast to navigate. To help you along the way, we've selected six shows to seek out: three solid bets from established local companies, and three wild cards with serious promise. For the full lineup, visit the Fertile Ground website.
7:30 p.m. Jan 20–22 and 25–28, 2 p.m. Jan 29 (additional run dates through Feb 18), Shoebox Theatre
In this Theatre Vertigo horror tale by Portlander Matthew B. Zrebski, a woman finds herself in a clearing in the Ozarks, possibly after the end of the world—and definitely tormented by ghosts and mythical beasts. Zrebski is skilled at building spooky environments: he also wrote Ablaze, a haunting a cappella musical thriller about a group of teenagers held captive by a psychopath in a pit beneath an abandoned high school.
7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, 24, and 25 (additional run dates through Feb 12), Gerding Theater
Portland Center Stage launches the first half of a two-part historical epic, set in the early 1800s, about John Jacob Astor’s grand (and failed) attempt to establish an international fur trading hub—and full-on political empire—in what’s now Astoria. PCS artistic director Coleman adapted the show from Peter Stark's book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, and research included visits to Fort Clatsop (a replica of Lewis and Clark's first winter encampment) and consultation with Native American tribal members about indigenous languages. This first half follows the trek to Oregon Coast, while the second half (premiering January 2018) will focus on the settling of Astoria.
7:30 p.m. Jan 19–21 and 26–28, 2 p.m. Jan 22 and 29, CoHo Theater
What really happened when D. B. Cooper parachuted out of that Boeing 727 somewhere over the Cascades in 1971? It’s a question that’s animated obsessive quests and countless conspiracy theories, and now a world premiere by Washington-raised playwright Tommy Smith, directed by Portland fave Isaac Lamb. Multiple actors share the role of the sunglass-wearing Cooper, allowing the zippy 75-minute production to explore possible theories about the hijacker's identity, as well as the crime's effect on one of the flight attendants.
New Frontiers in Vaginal Consciousness (VAGCON)
8 p.m. Jan 19–21, Lightbox Kulturhaus; 8 p.m. Jan 27–29, SomaSpace
A “fiery Shamanic Healer” and vaginal consciousness pioneer leads a workshop on group thrusting, fake orgasmic breathing, third eye rubbing, and other essential life skills. The good news? You don’t even need a vagina to connect to the VAGCON! Local comedic artist Kelly Nesbitt promises a take on new age healing that toes a fine line between the satirical and the confessional. Creative support has come from local theatrical and comedic luminaries, including Hand2Mouth’s executive director Jen Mitas, lending some heft to the hilarity.
7:30 p.m. Jan 20–21; 2 p.m. Jan 21–22, Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center
A staged reading of Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood—a play about one African American family’s experience of 1940s Portland and the 1948 Vanport Flood—was one of the highlights of last year's Fertile Ground, and went on to a fully staged production as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival that blew audiences away. This year, Rubin returns to Portland’s racist past, using the 1970s expansion of Emanuel Hospital to expplore of politics, gentrification, and the tension between economic forces and the people who so often become their victims. It’s a staged reading, but Damaris Webb’s presence as director guarantees a performative experience even within the constraints of seated actors with scripts.
8 p.m. Jan 20–21 and 27–28, 1 p.m. Jan 22 and 29, 4:30 p.m. Jan 22, Echo Theater
A chance to see four different local companies working in similar spaces, Uncommon Sense is a collection of works melding circus arts, dance, and physical theater to explore themes related to social justice. Echo Theater company’s Cartwheeling Uphill features performers from different disciplines and is accompanied by a live mixed-abilities band, while Sister: Grit’s What We Have Been Given looks at the effects of socialization and family on the individual. Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus brings queer and trans performers together to explore mythology and “wicked magic.”
The Fertile Ground Festival runs Jan 19–29 at various venues across Portland. Festival pass $50.