BWW Review: Fertile Ground Opening Weekend: ATLANTIS, FREE BOX, THE BABY PROJECT, LEFT HOOK, and WINGS OF FIRE
Fertile Ground 2017 is in full swing! If you haven't checked it out yet, there's still a full week of new works being premiered around the city. Here's my take on what I've seen so far.
From Broken Planetarium, the group that brought us Frankenstein: A Cabaret last year, ATLANTIS is a modern folk musical based on an age-old myth. In this version, Manhattan is the fabled city, which is now, thanks to climate change, almost entirely underwater, and the people have evolved gills to adapt to their new surroundings. A group of folk singers meets regularly to share songs and ideas, and in this environment, a young woman and an older man become friends. The musical is primarily about loss and how we deal with it as individuals and as a society. It's probably because they quoted the poem in the show, but I couldn't stop thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art."
I really enjoyed this musical (as I did Frankenstein). IMO this is a perfect example of why PDX is awesome -- because you can go to a small theatre, pay practically nothing, and see a completely original and thoughtful production put on by people who are obviously incredibly passionate about what they're doing. Also, the music was excellent and well-performed -- particularly Sofia May-Cuxim's stirring "A Hymn for the End of the World." She brought the house down.
My rating: 4 stars
FREE BOX, from YOCTOtheatre, is a full-length improv show based on Portland's famous "free boxes," i.e., boxes that people leave outside with free stuff for anyone to take. The audience is encouraged to bring items to put into the box, which intrepid performers Mary Rose and Nathaniel Holder then use to create an original production. The show also uses improved sound (by Chris Cagnilia) and improvised lighting (by Michael Cavazos).
Any previous association I had with the word improv, this wasn't it. Rather than theatre sports or something out of "Who's Line Is It, Anyway?," this piece is based on the practice of Action Theater, which is an improvisational physical training and performance method.
There were many things I liked about this show. It was different from anything I'd seen before and expanded my idea of what could be done with improv. I also have to give props to the performers -- I can't imagine what it must be like to walk out on stage with no idea of what's in the box. And there were some great moments.
There were also things that I felt didn't work. The performers often seemed to be out of harmony with each other. In particular, Holder kept trying to establish a particular place (e.g., Afghanistan, church) as a springboard for the action, while Rose kept trying to create a twisted relationship storyline that Holder didn't seem to want to participate in. They didn't often find a common ground. But, of course, it's improv, so this criticism is minor compared to the thrill of watching artists create work live, right in front of you.
My rating: 3½ stars
THE BABY PROJECT
This one-woman show is Sarah Shively's personal journey toward motherhood. Shively always wanted a baby, but like many women of her generation and today, she put it off until it was closing in on too late. The show chronicles her attempts to have a child in her late 30s and early 40s, from soliciting sperm from males friends to pumping herself full of fertility drugs, to eventually having frozen embryos implanted.
The script is well put-together. I felt keenly the ups and downs of Shively's emotional roller coaster. And she gives a great performance, embodying a wide variety of characters, from her parents to her partner, to the woman who assessed her for parental fitness (a New York state requirement, or so she was told, for all lesbian couples who wanted children). I'll be interested to see where this one goes from here.
My rating: 4 stars
LEFT HOOK by Rich Rubin, presented by the Vanport Mosaic, is a fictionalized story based on the real gentrification and displacement of the Portland's African American community that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Set in a boxing club in the Albina district, LEFT HOOK brings to life the people whose homes were razed and lives uprooted, first for the construction of Veterans Memorial Coliseum, then for the I-5, and finally for the expansion of the Emanuel Hospital, which never actually took place.
This play is very powerful. And it's especially important now, as gentrification continues to march across our city. What I loved most about it is that it's hopeful. It presents the past, but doesn't dwell on it, instead asking us to acknowledge history while also finding a way to make amends and move forward together.
I would love to see LEFT HOOK get a full production in an upcoming season.
My rating: 5 stars
WINGS OF FIRE
This original musical about the women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is my favorite show at Fertile Ground so far. The show takes as its launching-off point eyewitness accounts of a man helping four women jump from a window on the 9th floor of the factory to their deaths. The show combines the true history of the tragedy with fictional stories of the four women, who came to America with hopes and dreams, only to die because the factory owners put money before the safety of their workers. The tragedy, which killed 146 garment workers, led to the establishment of many of the building codes and regulations we have today, like fire doors opening out instead of in.
WINGS OF FIRE started as a play, written by Hayley Hoffmeister Green as part of a class assignment. While living in New York, she workshopped the show Off-Broadway. Then, she and husband Austin Riley Green decided to turn it into a musical. Austin wrote the music, taking inspiration from classic tunes of the 1910s.
I thought this show was excellent. By telling stories of the women, rather than just the tragedy, it allows us to see them as people, not just statistics. The history is extensively researched, the story well crafted, and the music emotionally engaging. It was also excellently performed by a cast that had very few rehearsals thanks to snowpocalypse.
The Greens are hoping to take this show to the next level. They're currently working on completing the orchestrations and seeking investors. If you've always wanted to be a Broadway producer, this could be a good bet!
My rating: 5+ stars
Photo credit: Laura Hadden