What a great festival it was!

By: Apr. 24, 2024
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Portland’s 2024 Fertile Ground Festival of New Works is officially over. What a great festival it was! I enjoyed everything I saw, and there are several that I believe merit full productions. Here are my thoughts about the second half of the festival (read Roundup #1).

Bone Sorrow

This show comprised three short pieces by Nina Monique Kelly – A Circle of Stones, about generational mental illness and dealing with the death of a daughter; Cleave, the story of a girl whose mother died in childbirth but was able to transcend death, for a time, to care for her child; and The Elder Tree, which is set in 1500s Europe and tells the story of a family and town torn apart when a local woman healer is accused of being a witch. While each piece could function as a standalone, together they tell a powerful story about centuries of oppression women have faced and the often terrible choices they’ve had to make to survive and care for their family.

The plays are all surrealist with a heavy dose of the supernatural. This, along with the eerie and fabulous live music by composer and violinist Octavia Con Amore and vocalist BLUE Kelly, gave them an ethereal, dreamlike quality.

Watching surrealist theatre is like looking at those 3D posters that were popular in the ‘90s – you have to relax and let your eyes go a little blurry and then the image appears. With these plays, what appeared to me was an intense feeling of the weight of trauma throughout history and how it can result in a sorrow you really can feel in your bones.

The Mural

This one surprised me! I tend to be skeptical about shows that seem too…(what’s the best description?)…optimistic about humanity. (I’m Gen X, what can I say?) But Alison Wesley’s play about a community coming together to support a local business owner completely won me over. 

The play centers on Denny, the owner and operator behind a brand new soup cafe. She has put more than everything she has into the business, but the restaurant industry is tough and money is tight. The last straw comes when a mural she painted on an exterior wall is vandalized. Denny, who usually apologizes when people run into her on the street, finds herself challenging the vandal to come forth and meet her face to face. News of the challenge spreads all the way to the local news, putting Denny, her cafe, and the local community into the spotlight.

THE MURAL was presented as a staged reading in a way that fully embraced the spirit of community and of the Fertile Ground festival – it featured first-time actors alongside professionals. Wesley, who also played the role of Denny, hopes to get a full production of the stage play as well as turn it into a film. I really hope she succeeds.


Three teachers in a place politically not at all like Portland find themselves in a gun safety training program that was started by two local police officers after an incident at a school led to the discovery of four guns on the premises. The teachers all have different opinions of and experience with firearms. As they move through the training, they wrestle with their feelings about the fact that their chosen profession of teaching children (some as young as early elementary) now increasingly involves the risk of dealing with an active shooter situation.

Playwright Sara Jean Accuardi has a talent for approaching challenging subjects in a way that is both delicate and unflinching. That is especially true in PULL. By focusing on the characters’ personal interactions with guns, she shines a light on the real-world consequences of government policies.

As school shootings continue to happen, the question of whether teachers should be armed is coming up more and more. PULL is the type of play that demonstrates the societal value of art – it can help us avoid the rhetorical quagmire around guns and instead reflect on what it really means to have them in our schools.

Strange Birds

E.M. Lewis, one of Oregon’s top playwrights, seems to be embracing the thriller genre lately (e.g., True Story, produced last year at Artists Rep). And I am here for it! STRANGE BIRDS is a well-crafted thriller about women, secrets, and wolves.

Lou is an artist who moved to a cabin in the woods to get away from people, but finds herself being the one others turn to for help. After finding blood in the snow outside Lou’s sister’s Gwylan’s house, a forest ranger and her new trainee pay Lou a visit. Then, Gwylan and their other sister Phoebe show up in a state of panic…just before a storm snows them all in.

For starters, Strange Birds is just a darn good story. Even as just a reading, this one got my heart pounding! But, beyond that, it’s a sensitive and insightful exploration of the kinds of choices we have to make to protect the people we love. Lewis makes it easy to put yourself in the shoes of every character in this play, forcing yourself to consider what you would do in their circumstances. I would LOVE to see this fully realized on stage.

An Equal Voice: The Story of Votes for Women

Randi Douglas’s play about the history of votes for women was part of the Fertile Ground festival a few years ago. At that time, I thought it was incredibly important, and that import has only grown as we’re now in an election year and voting rights for many people continue to be under attack. In the current climate, participating in this show is practically a civic duty.

You’ll notice that I said “participating,” not “watching.” This is not just a play you passively watch. It’s a process you participate in – through volunteering to read various parts, discussing key issues in small groups, and even singing anthems. Through these activities, along with history lessons and dramatizations, Douglas brings the struggle of the 70-year women’s suffrage campaign vividly to life.

Plan V: Acts of Pleasure (Activism)

I have seen a lot of Zoom theatre, but never anything like this. Eleanor O’Brien has seriously raised the bar. Plan V: Acts of Pleasure (Activism) is the third installment in her series about a future “Great Awakening” of goddess worship and holding sacred the divine feminine. Plan V is a cult dedicated to such worship, and the show takes the form of a meeting with the audience as cult members. It starts out with some icebreakers of games and art, and then moves to official business. The most important item on the agenda is voting on what member passion project we want to support – after all, this cult is all about activism!

As with the previous installments in the series, this is sex positive theatre – and it gets graphic! But it’s also about the struggles of overcoming shame and other challenges associated with intimacy. Wherever you are on the spectrum of comfort with yourself as a sexual being, you will find this a safe space.

I am a fan of O’Brien’s work in general, but what really impressed me here were the technical aspects. I spend a lot of my day on Zoom, and I have no idea how she accomplished what she did – seriously next-level Zooming. It was like being in a real meeting (a good one, not a work one), and even though it was all staged, I felt accountable for carrying out my role as a cult member to the best of my ability.

Overall, this show was a delightful step into a fantasy of the future where pleasure is the highest level of enlightenment. If we’re all going to join a cult, it might as well be one like that!


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