Fertile Ground Fest Field Guide

Our updated reviews and picks for the final weekend of the new-works smorgasbord. Thru Feb. 3.

By Aaron Scott and Jonathan Frochtzwajg With Genevieve Hudson January 30, 2013

Sometimes it seems like Portland’s soggy winters are good only for growing mold and mushrooms, but these dark days of introspection also nurture one of Portland’s most verdant arts festivals: Fertile Ground. One of the only fests in the country to present a noncurated lineup of new works spanning theater, dance, and multimedia performance, Fertile Ground involves a smorgasbord of some 90 world premieres and staged readings by 50 producers in venues across the city. It runs Jan 24–Feb 3, and you can access it all for a measly 50 bucks (that's basically the cost of two shows).

Pickings include full productions like Portland Playhouse’s doo-wop serial-killer thriller The Huntsmen (our review), multidisciplinary masters Hand2Mouth’s year-in-the-works love extravaganza Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, and the raw-’n’-pungent multinight art salad at Milepost 5’s Ripen: A Feast of New Works. 

Of course, new works are risky. Some of the shows will fall flat. But others will soar onto bigger stages, like A Noble Failure (our review), which had a staged reading last year and is now opening as a full production at Third Rail (read our profile of the author, Sue Mach).

We’re adding reviews as we see the shows, so make sure to check back regularly. And for those shows we haven't seen, we asked the producers to send us an anticipatory question that they’d like the audience to enter their performance with—a question that somehow sets up the show, hints at what's to come, or frames how they’d like us to think about the work. And, of course, let us know which ones you think rock.

Photo by Brud Giles

Top Pick The Huntsmen
Portland Playhouse
Thu–Sat at 7:30pm; Sat–Sun at 2pm thru Feb. 17
World Premiere

What we said: “The plot to Portland Playhouse’s new world premiere, The Huntsmen, sounds like a swinging suburban update of Sweeney Todd, but in the place of the barber, we have a teenager, and subbing for Sondheim’s operatic ensemble cast is an a cappella backing group. That’s right, a thriller about a teenage serial killer set to a doo-wop score. And man, it’s a gas.” (Read the full review.)

Question: "What songs get stuck in the mind of a serial killer?"

Photo by Owen Carey

Top Pick A Noble Failure
Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Winningstad Theatre
Thu–Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2pm thru Feb. 3
World Premiere

What we said: “The play allows the audience to fully inhabit the teachers and, to a lesser agree, the motivation of the reform movement, making art that is achingly funny, entertaining, relevant, and thought-provoking from public policy—certainly that’s gold star worthy.” (Read the full review.)

Question: "What is it cost to keep a student in school?"


Top Pick  International Falls
CoHo Theatre
Thu–Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2:00pm thru Feb. 10

World Premiere

New What we said: "Set almost entirely in a motel room heated against the deathly freeze outside, Minnesotan playwright Thomas Ward has created a piece of theater that's crackling with life: the comedic, the tragic, and all that lies between. The world-premiere work, presented by CoHo Productions, opens on a horrifically awkward hook-up between the play's two characters...Isaac Lamb, a Third Rail Repertory Theatre core company member, and Laura Faye Smith embody the protagonist pair with dynamic complexity and seamless authenticity." (Read the full review.)

Photo by OwenCarey

The Lost Boy
Artists Repertory Theatre
Tue–Sat at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:00pm thru Feb 10
World Premiere

What we said:The Lost Boy has all the ingredients for a stellar piece of theater, and indeed shows some great creativity under the directorial hand of Allen Nause in its use of the carnival players as stagehands and headline barkers. But the kidnapping trope is a well-worn one, and with the exception of the final scene, the play fails to stray far from the beaten path, leaving its characters mostly one-sided and predictable, which is all the more glaring for the depth of Failure’s characters.” (Read the full review.)

Question: “Does media attention and celebrity voice help or harm when the stakes of a personal crisis are high?"

Pick Feral–Homelessness in Portland
CompassWorks, the Bob White Theatre Warehouse
Jan 24–26, 31; Feb 1, 2 at 7:30pm

World Premiere

Review in short: Sitting in an arrangement of metal chairs surrounding a twenty-square-foot slab of concrete in an cold warehouse is unnerving in itself, but as an older gentleman wanders into the center only to be relentlessly berated by an unruly mob of disheveled transients, electricity officially scrapes through your nerves. The intensity never fully dissipates during Feral’s almost two-hour narrative, produced by local theater company CompassWorks in partnership with local social-services agencies, detailing the struggles of living without a home. Based on interviews by the playwright, Bruce Hostetler, with Portland’s homeless community, the group of hardened street veterans give the newly dispossessed man hard-nosed advice and expose the painful truth behind day-to-day life, each sharing the story of their road to homelessness, ranging from the unplanned consequences of teenage recklessness to extremely tragic upbringings. One, naming himself Jackal, gives a heartbreaking testimony of growing up sexually abused and his consequent introversion that led to frequent problems surviving on Portland’s streets. Stories like Jackal’s are the painful realities that most of us tend to shun, but to simply bare witness to them opened my eyes to this often-ignored world, and will likely open yours. —Gino Cerruti

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble & Gisela Cardenas, the Headwaters Theatre
January 24–27, 31; February 1–3 at 7:00pm

World Premiere

What we said:Under the reins of the decorated international director Gisela Cardenas, this reimagining of Richard III’s journey through manipulation and murder to England’s throne from the perspective of the female characters unsettles the audience’s remembrance of the classic Shakespeare text in a sinister, mesmerizing way, playing up the macabre with a barren, almost dystopian set and unusual use of props (black umbrellas carried by women, small galoshes to symbolize children, unadorned tables, and multimedia). But ultimately it loses itself in the convoluted heft of the story. ” (Read the full review.)

Question: “What makes a monster?"

David Saffert's Birthday Bashstravaganza!: Die More Hard
Curious Comedy Theater
Jan 25, 26, Feb 1, 2 at 7:30pm
Variety Show

Review in short: There’s really only one word to describe David Saffert’s Birthday Bashtravaganza! Die More Hard, and you can likely guess it: goofy. From the opening number, in which he strips from his tux to a bathrobe and bunny slippers (which nod frenetically as he pushes the piano pedals), this accompanist for the Portland Opera sets a playfully light tone for the annual Fertile Ground variety show he throws on his birthday. It might be just be another variety show, if not for the prestige of its guests, which include Oregon Ballet soloist Lucas Threefoot (who starts out with a Star Wars interpretive dance), Portland Opera’s mezzo soprano Alexis Hamilton, who gives an incredibly emotional performance, and violin and cello pair Annie Harkey-Power and Don Power. Which is to say, incredible performers you’d usually have to squint to see at the Keller, but now you get them up close and with a Martini. Plus, there’s a Skyped in “performance” by Russian pianist Vladimir Sultanov and puppets—damn good puppets. —Aaron Scott

Photo by Chelsea Ibarra

Ribbons of War
Minus Dan Productions, Shaking Tree Studio
Jan 25, 26, Feb 1, 2 at 7:30pm; Jan 27, Feb 3 at 2:30pm

Workshop Production - Musical Theatre

Promising "Adventure! Romance! Sea Monsters!" (and probably more exclamation points), Minus Dan Productions workshops its musical about a young pilot, Annelies, "who abandons her island home to marry a great sea captain and join the crew of the Good Ship Valiant."

A House To Call Our House
Julia Calabrese + Layla Marcelle Mrozowski, Publication Studio
Jan 25, Feb 1–2 at 9pm; Jan 26, Feb 2 at 2pm; Jan 26 at 7pm; Jan 27 at 4pm
World Premiere

Multidisciplinary artists Julia Calabrese and Layla Marcelle Mrozowski's combine elements from dance, theater, and sculpture to create "a kaleidoscope of images, dancing bodies, banners, houseplants and infinite gyrating.

True Colors: Fulfillment, Women, and the Body
Vanport Square Studio
Jan 26 and Feb 2 at 4:00pm


Question: “What happens when a dissertation goes awry, the topic becomes personal, and the research question becomes a quest for fulfillment itself?"

Pulp Diction IV: The Pulp Sampler
The Pulp Stage, The Brody Theater
Jan 26 & Feb 2 at 10:30pm
Staged Reading

Question: “Would you rather be a tap-dancing witch or a redneck vampire?”

Finding the Lost Spark
HeARTspace, the Headwaters Theatre
Jan 27, Feb 3 at 1:00pm; Jan 30 at 7:00pm

World Premiere

Art-space-for-moms HeARTspace presents a one-woman show by art therapist Sue Ellen Liss about five generations of mothers and daughters in her family.

Winners of CoHo’s 2012 NEWxNW Student Playwriting Competition: The Candlestick Maker
Coho Theatre
Jan 27 at 4:30pm; Feb 2 at 11:00am

Staged Reading

Question: “Are we the writers or characters of our story?”

Pick Winner of CoHo 2012 NEWxNW Playwriting Competition: Exit 27
CoHo Theatre
Jan 27 at 6:30pm; Feb 2 at 1pm

Staged Reading

New Review in short: Exit 27 begins with a state of total disorientation for the characters and the audience alike. Three teenage boys have a fourth tied up in a closet in a battered shack in the middle of nowhere. They’re all frightened, they’re all hiding, and we don’t know why. Over the course of the play, which is receiving an electric staged reading at CoHo Theatre as the winner of the NEWxNW Playwriting Competition, it becomes clear that the four have been exiled from the fundamentalist Mormon town of Colorado City and will go to any end to return.

Based on interviews conducted by playwright Aleks Merilo with actual boys who were exiled (it’s a simple math problem: men can’t have multiple wives if there’s gender parity, so any opportunity to thin the flock is exploited), the story is heartbreaking for the image it paints not only of life in the fundamentalist stronghold, where girls are walled into rooms for running away from their arranged older husbands, but of the even bleaker life outside. These boys have been raised in a violently isolationist culture bearing no resemblance to wider America. Among other things, they think dinosaurs are alien remains mixed into the Earth when God assembled it from alien planets, and that they can get a girl pregnant just by looking at her. Terrified and disdainful of we “Outsiders,” they wander lost, if they don’t lose themselves in meth and coke.

The young cast, consisting of Carson Cook, Steve Rathje, Joel Patrick Durham, Daniel Crumrine, and Lissie Huff, play their characters with incredible grit and intensity, considering they’re still holding their scripts. But the real start is Merilo’s script, which is as fascinating as it is unsettling for the view it gives us into this tragic world. —Aaron Scott

The Witch of the Iron Wood
Ripen: A Feast of New Works at Milepost 5, the Chapel Theatre at Milepost 5
Jan 27, 28, 31 & Feb 1 at 7pm

Workshop - Opera

New Review in short: At this point, The Witch of the Iron Wood is more like a Hogwarts student: Fertile Ground's sole opera, presented by Milepost 5 as a workshop production, is still very much a work in progress. Yet even with one scene unwritten and just three scenes scored (and those with only piano and vocal parts), Witch shows potential. Portland playwright Claire Willett's libretto, adapted from a less-known Norse myth, offers some intriguing character dynamics—such as the bond the witch, a giant, and Loki, half-god/half-giant, share as outsiders—and some rich concepts—such as the witch's notion that Odin (the Norse Zeus, who never appears on stage) is a delusion of the gods. Portland-born, L.A.-based composer Evan Lewis's unsettling score compliments the story's dark tone, and, despite the fact that she was ill for the performance we attended, singer Beth Madsen Bradford brings an appropriately witchy, beguiling quality to her performance. —Jonathan Frochtzwajg

Photo by Patrick Weishampel

Pick Something's Got Ahold of My Heart
Hand2Mouth Theatre, Studio 2
Thu–Sun at 8pm, running Jan 31 – Feb 17
World Premiere

Hand2Mouth Theatre first workshopped this show about love in three movements at last year’s Fertile Ground Festival. Since then, the company’s refined it during residencies first at Disjecta’s Biennial and then at New York’s state-of-the-art Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, before premiering the full production in New York last month. With so much prep, expect a juicy, multimedia show of the best kind of love.

Photo by Emily Ward

Pick Sonnetscape
Fuse Theatre Ensemble, Theater! Theatre!
Jan 31, Feb 1–2 at 10pm; Feb 3 at 7pm
World Premiere

New What we said:But the work is not a narrative. If anything, it’s more comparable to a poetical version of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, touching on the themes, moments, and fragments that can interchange in endless permutations as they make up the ever-chaotic story of love. And this production certainly brims with passion, whether expressed by the interpretative dancing, the ravaging of Goldman’s character, or the madman-like scribbling on the theatre floor. Yet the sheer denseness and disorientation of the journey forestalls a strong emotional connection for the audience, making it more a voyage of the mind than of the heart.” (Read the full review.)

Rain! The Musical
Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center
Feb 1-2, 7:30pm; Feb 3, 3:00pm

Staged Reading - Musical Theater

Question: “What's the point of Portland without the rain?”

Photo by Brad Bolchuno

Umbrella for Three
PDX Playwrights Presents: Brad Bolchunos, HipBone Studio
February 2 at 7:00pm

Workshop Production

Question: “Whether through extra sensory perception, a change in communication, or an ability to ask death for a “re-deal” - what if we could somehow control how we intersect with the consciousness of others?”

SubRosa Dance Collective’s Living the Room
Groovin' Greenhouse, Polaris Contemporary Dance Center, various venues
February 2 at 7:00pm


For three days, Polaris, in partnership with the Fertile Ground Festival, serves as an incubator of dance pieces in their infancy, presenting new work from Jennifer Camp, SubRosa Dance Collective, student troupe NW Fusion, and the Bridge City Dance Project, which infuses modern dance with elements of ballet and hip-hop.

Question: “Why is it so hard to live in America?"

Reviews for shows that have completed their runs:

4x4=8 Musicals
Live on Stage, Brunish Theatre
Jan 24–27 at 7:30pm
Premiere - Musical Theater

What we said: "By distilling the stage to a simple wooden platform and limiting props, the production fosters an innovative environment ripe for new theatrical tricks and turns. However, as I sat in the audience, eager to be entertained, I found myself at times struggling to hear the words over the music—and to find real, laugh-out-loud humor in the pieces." (Read the full review.)

Virgin in Neverland
Fuse Theatre Ensemble, Arena Stage at Theater! Theatre!
Jan 24–26 at 10pm; Jan 27 at 7pm
World Premiere

Review in short: Twenty-six-year-old Nikolas Hoback mixes his story of Christian-motivated virginity with the characters of Neverland, shifting in and out of real-life and fantasy in a 70-minute game of make believe in which he plays every character. He’s at his best when he channels the energy of defiant boyhood, bounding around stage and literally climbing up the walls. But ultimately he never gives a reason for why, after a very straightforward start, his life suddenly starts muddling with J.M. Barrie's dream world (not to mention some Biblical references and a Rocky Horror version of the Greek god Pan). As his storybook episodes dragged past 11 pm, drifting further and further from clarity, I began to yearn for someone to tuck me in from this bedtime tale. —Aaron Scott

The Seven Wonders of Chipping
Artists Repertory Theatre
Jan 26 at 2pm; Jan 28 at 7:30pm

Staged Reading

New Review in short: In the program, C.S. Whticomb writes that she resisted writing this play for many years, worried it would be too "uncommercial" and "unhip," but in the end, the story and its warm, fully realized characters outgrew her head and demanded a place on paper and on the stage, much to our benefit. What started as a series of conversations in pubs across the Cotswolds has become a complex and humorous script that received a staged reading at the Fertile Ground Festival, but is ready for a full production.

In 1950s Wales, Cordelia, a damaged young American woman, read by Laura Faye Smith, arrives in the border town of Chippingon-Wye, acting jumpy and agitated. On the verge of nervous collapse, troubled by the events around her father's recent death, she searches for her roots in a village whose only claim is that it is home to the great poet Findlay Snowden. Instead, she finds a loud-mouthed pub owner, a charming WWII veteran, a drunken regular, a mysterious aristocrat, a poet's ghost, and “7 wonders”—all of which confront her with humor, love, and whiskey delivered in thumb-sized doses as prescriptions for the mess of being human.

At its core, the story is about the difficult acceptance of our limitations, and the happy ending is an affirmation of survival, a love of uncomplicated things that transcends philosophy and trumps materialism. It reminds us that no wound is too deep to be beyond the help of the fellow wounded. And a plentiful amount of amber whiskey never hurts. —Sam Coggeshall

Discourse Productions, CoHo Theatre
Jan 26 at 2:00pm; Jan 29, 30 at 7:30pm

World Premiere

Review in short: Marilyn/MISFITS/Miller, written by local playwright Rich Rubin, recounts the "odd-couple" marriage of famed playwright Arthur Miller and the forever infamous Marilyn Monroe, from its joyful beginnings to eventual disintegration in 1960 on the set of The Misfits, which Miller wrote in an attempt to salvage their dying relationship. Iconic personalities of the time—Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, Saul Bellow—pop-up in the couple's destructive orbit, offering sympathy and outrage as, true to legend, the overly-medicated, hyper-sexual diva struggles with demons beyond her control. The play entertains these pulpy tidbits for laughs, but manages to avoid transforming Monroe into her modern-day caricature by revealing her very real dark side—a sadness that slowly, inevitably consumed her, and from which not even Miller's final act of devotion could save her. Monroe is elegantly portrayed by Juliet Prosser, an actress who zeroes in on this fragility. She repeatedly confides in colleagues how overwhelming life has become, and it is in these moments where we perceive her heartbreaking disorientation and vulnerability. —Sam Coggeshall


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