FERTILE GROUND ROUNDUP #1

Portland's Fertile Ground Festival is happening now!

By: Apr. 17, 2024
FERTILE GROUND ROUNDUP #1
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We are halfway through Portland’s 2024 Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, and every show I’ve seen so far has reminded me why this is my favorite 11 days of the year. I’ve seen several readings, some other works in progress, and a couple of fully-staged shows. Here’s my roundup so far.

Anne Zander is MOTHER

I first saw Anne Zander in JUICEBOX, a show that perfectly encapsulated the embarrassing, awkward, confusing time that is teenage girlhood. I laughed so much my face hurt, first because Zander is hysterical and also because I recognized so much of myself in the character. Now, she’s bringing that same treatment to motherhood.

Zander is a master at identifying the essential weirdness of the human experience. She takes things we as a society don’t like to talk about, or only talk about in whispers – in this case, things like placentas, breast pumps, and the fact that new motherhood isn’t all flowers and unicorns – and amplifies them to the most outrageous extreme you can imagine. She’s a clown, so it’s funny, but it also has the effect of making you feel not alone in your own essential weirdness. We’re all weird. Weird is actually quite normal.

As with all of Zander’s work that I’ve seen, Anne Zander is MOTHER, is raw and primal and surprising, and side-splittingly funny. Literally. I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time and my sides hurt afterward.

You have two more chances to see this show – April 20 and 21 at 3:15 at the Curious Comedy Annex. I highly recommend you don’t miss out.

TheTnTGamer

Remember the early days of YouTube? When random people created grainy videos of themselves doing all kinds of strange things? (On reflection, maybe all that’s changed since then is the camera resolution.) In those halcyon days, Annabelle Wright was a pre-teen boy who spent most of his time playing video games and making quirky YouTube videos. Now, Wright reflects on that time in her debut solo in TheTnTGamer, named after her YouTube channel.

Just like those YouTube videos, this show is quirky. And also heartwarming. It’s a nostalgic look back not just at that time in her life, but that time in all our lives, when the internet was a much different creature than it is now. I love how Wright fully embraces the awkwardness of her pre-teen self, recognizing with affection the contribution of her past to the person she’s become today.

This show is funny and positive and all about self-acceptance. There are two more performances – April 20 and 21 at 2pm at the Curious Comedy Annex. For a whole afternoon of laughs, make it a double feature with Anne Zander is MOTHER.

A Bridge to the Promised Land: 1968

I saw the very first reading of this script, but Milton Williams started working on the show – which combines music, dance, and theatre – over 50 years ago. Over the decades, Williams, an internationally-acclaimed musician, composer, lyricist, and conductor, has refined his soaring score (crafted for a 32-piece orchestra), and added dance (a full corps de ballet) and now a book by Ananda Bena-Webber.

The show, set in 1972, tells the story of Hubert Tuner, a Black mayor of a large city in the South, who has to decide how best he can serve the people he represents. Developers want to tear down an old hotel that is now a homeless shelter to create a parking structure – should he grant the permit or prioritize the housing? He is a talented and sought-after politician – should he focus his efforts locally or pursue the national stage? Ultimately, this show is about how to balance pressures from various corners while staying true to one’s values.

The Fertile Ground run of A Bridge to the Promised Land: 1968 is over, but I have absolutely no doubt that the show will be fully realized sometime in the near future on a much bigger stage. Watch for it!

Hexen

I’m so glad that I pulled this one out of the grab bag that is the Fertile Ground schedule! Combining storytelling, music, and aerial arts, Dreya Weber’s exploration of witch archetypes – the Crone, the Bewitcher, and the Daughter – is a treat!

Hexen is a theatrical performance and a history lesson rolled into one. Weber weaves personal stories with information about the women throughout history who have been accused of, and often killed for, being witches (“hexen” in German). Interesting fact: Most women who were killed for witchcraft were accused of manipulating the weather – would that we had such power! In the show, she reclaims these identities – the Crone as an old woman with essential wisdom to share, the Bewitcher as a woman (of any age) who owns and exercises her sexuality on her own terms, and the Daughter as a young woman seeking wisdom from those who have come before her. Ultimately, this is a show about women embracing our power.

Weber has added two more shows to the schedule – April 18 and 19 at 7:30pm at JaJaPDX. If you can get a ticket, you won’t regret it.

Sam’s 21st

When I heard the elevator pitch for the reading of this new musical, I thought it sounded snarky and funny and delightfully queer. It was all of those things, and also quite touching. The show, which had a one-night-only reading at Clinton Street Theater, takes place on the night of Samantha’s 21st birthday, when her friends throw her a big, college-blowout type of birthday bash.

The problem? Sam is an introvert. She doesn’t want a big party. What she really wants is to reunite with her high school best friend, Sophie, who Sam has been carrying a torch for since they kissed on prom night four years ago. Sophie, who skipped college for a modeling career, comes to the party, but kisses Sam’s housemate. As Sam indulges in the 21st birthday tradition of drinking way too much, all of the feelings she has repressed throughout her life come tumbling out.

With Sam’s 21st, Duncan Kass (book, music, lyrics) and Niels Truman (book) have created a delightful show about finding your voice, learning how to adult, and the right to be loved in the way that feels best to you. A person I sat next to noted that, despite all of the talk about sex, drinking, and drugs, the show was surprisingly wholesome. I agree! And I really hope it has a life post-Fertile Ground.

Have Fun Kids

Laura Anne Harris lost her best friend, Jordan, in 2020. He was also a performer and left behind more than 700 pages of scripts. As her way of dealing with the loss, she combined her writings with his and created this show.

Have Fun Kids is a highly personal, nonlinear dive into the highly personal, nonlinear process of grief. Harris has divided her memories, Jordan’s writings, and the story of the day she learned he died into several folders. Every performance, the folders are shuffled so that the stories are told in a different order. I only saw it once, but it’s fascinating to think about how the experience would change if you encountered the material in a different way.

This is a show about mental health challenges and suicide, but also about love and community. Plus there’s tap dancing! I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Lesbian Pageant

Oh my gosh, what a joy! I am exactly the target audience for this show, but still I found it an unexpected treat. A rent increase threatens the existence of a 26-year-old lesbian bar, so Darcy – an old school butch who had her 30th and 40th birthday parties there – hatches a plan to save it by staging a 90s-themed-lesbian pageant. The problem is that not everyone is convinced the bar needs saving, particularly lesbians of different generations, lesbians of color, and people representing different parts of the larger queer community.

This play, by Amy Driesler and Virginia Baeta, jumps head first into difficult but important conversations about community, belonging, and having spaces where you can be yourself. It’s also smart and funny and pokes gentle fun at us all in the best possible way. This is another one I’m excited to see continue to develop.

A Concert of Songs from Freedom: The Untold Story of Moses

The story of Moses is so central to many current belief structures that it’s hard to imagine what remains untold, but writer / composer Chari Smith shifts the focus. Though Moses is the central character, this show highlights the perspectives of his Hebrew mother as she put him in a basket as well as the princess who fishes him out of the river. In other words, it’s about the women in his life. Well, not entirely. But that’s certainly one focus of this concert.

Smith has written more than 20 songs for Freedom: The Untold Story of Moses, and this concert presents just under half of them. What’s clear is Smith’s musical talent – the songs are beautiful. There are even a few that I can imagine being performed apart from the show. And, as I mentioned in my festival preview, there are some seriously great voices involved in this concert.

You have one more chance to see this show – April 21 at 4pm at the Eastside Jewish Commons. Otherwise, keep your eye out for the planned full production.




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