Cookies, Karaoke, and Revolution  

Reviews from the First Weekend of Fertile Ground

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The Fertile Ground festival of new works continues this weekend, with new plays debuting at theaters across town. See fertilegroundpdx.org for details on what's coming up; meanwhile, here's a look at what we've seen so far.

Famished, Portland Playhouse at the Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm, through Feb 5, $19-23

As a rule, I am strongly in favor of any endeavor that involves someone giving me a cookie. It boded well, then, that snacks were handed out as we entered the theater for Portland Playhouse's production of Famished. The early moments of the show were equally promising: Famished opens with a playfully choreographed family dinner, introducing the six characters whose lives give the show its shape.

Once that shape emerged, though—and once it became apparent just how much food-related baggage playwright Eugenia Woods had inflicted upon her characters—my cookie-related enthusiasm dimmed considerably.

The show's central character is a woman named Diane, represented rather creepily by a baby doll in the opening scene, and later played—in adolescence and adulthood—by Jill Westerby. As an adult, Diane spars with her partner Jack (Isaac Lamb) over the meals they eat—"your food is offensive," she snaps of his high-carbon-footprint burger and fries—and laments the cravings inflicted by her pregnancy. Jack's own appetites lead him to a Mexican food cart, and the charms of its proprietor (Jessica Wallenfels), who temporarily woos Jack with her earthy Latina sensuality and home cooking. (This problematic subplot is a fourth-wall-busting device intended to show Jack and Diane what their relationship is missing—but winking at a cliché doesn't make it any less tired.)

There are moments of humor and insight here, but Famished never finds a comfortable balance between its characters and its determination to explore food's every conceivable literal, sentimental, and metaphorical function. (This completist approach gets unforgivable with the introduction of an 11th-hour cancer subplot that shoehorns in the notion of food as medicine.) Moreover, there's nothing particularly revelatory about its conclusions: Food is connected to emotions. The way we eat reflects how we feel about ourselves. Yuppies can be super duper annoying about food. With these observations and more, Famished banks too heavily on the everybody-eats universality of its subject matter, earnestly telling us things we already know. ALISON HALLETT

Karaoke Night! (the musical), Fuse Theatre Ensemble, various locations, see fusepdx.org for details, $5 suggested donation

To actually enjoy oneself at karaoke, one must have three things: a large group of shamelessly extroverted friends, a bartender with a heavy hand, and a sense of humor. Fuse Theatre Ensemble is banking on Portland's fondness for karaoke and stereotypes with their festival production of Karaoke Night! (the musical). The show is site specific so you can see it at Funhouse Lounge, Local Lounge, or Artists Repertory Theatre. The cast is different every night, as is the crowd, which can make or break an interactive show like this.

Show up early to get your drink on and try to spot who is part of the show and who is just a weird person at the bar before things start. The obnoxious young newlyweds from Texas, the guy in the tux warming up his vocal chords, and the moody chick glaring at the KJ are all in the show; the cracked-out dude with a pimp cane and the smitten gay couple are not (unfortunately).

The loosely staged karaoke competition begins, and a willing audience member is pulled in to take the place of an absent contender. The characters interact with each other and the audience—bidding for votes, flirting, breaking up, and making up. Meanwhile, all the karaoke classics are covered, but by people with predictably better voices, which is pleasant, but a little confusing. Not quite a concert, not quite a play, not quite karaoke. This show is for people who like singing in front of strangers and/or like watching strange people sing. Tip your KJ. JESSIE DRAKE

Dear Galileo, presented by Artists Repertory Theatre, no further shows

Galileo, an astrophysicist, and a creationist walk into a bar... no wait, not a joke, but part of the story in Claire Willett's new play Dear Galileo, which received its world-premiere staged reading at Artists Repertory Theatre on January 21. Willett is a veteran of Fertile Ground, with a play in the festival every year since 2009.

Dear Galileo is a promising new work, smart and sensitive, although the cerebral conflict is more compelling than any conflict in the action of the play. Willett presents a triptych of scientist-father/daughter relationships. In Renaissance Italy, Galileo (Chris Porter) lives under house arrest for defying the authority of God and the pope with his revolutionary scientific publications, but continues his work with the reluctant assistance of his smart spinster daughter Celeste (Adrienne Flagg). In conservative Texas, creationist author Robert Snow (Chris Harder) deals with his precocious 10-year-old, Haley (Margaux Rajotte), who dares to question the presence of dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. And in Arizona, world-famous astrophysicist Jasper Willows (David Bodin) has gone missing and his estranged daughter Cassie (Pat Janowski) arrives to help find him.

Each relationship explores a different side of the age-old conflicts: science vs. religion, father vs. daughter, fact vs. truth. The most potent parts of the text come in the juxtaposition between Jasper's lectures on the physics of the universe including black holes, the Doppler effect, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and the simple observations of a curious child who likes to look at the stars. JESSIE DRAKE

The North Plan, Portland Center Stage, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 NW 11th, Tues-Sun 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm, through Feb 5, $34 & up, pcs.org

The North Plan is an office comedy with the stakes ratcheted high—the office in question is a police station, where the police chief and an administrative officer debate the proper handling of prisoners in the face of a crumbling government infrastructure and shady interference from the Department of Homeland Security.

The show's first act—which involves a whole lot of yelling—introduces foul-mouthed redneck Tanya (Kate Eastwood Norris) to paranoid, nervous Carlton (Brian Patrick Monahan). The two are jailed in adjacent holding cells in a small Indiana town—Tanya because she turned herself in for drunken driving, while Carlton is wanted for questioning by the Department of Homeland Security, which lends some credence to his crazy-sounding claims that the government is about to start rounding up citizens and putting them in camps. As Tanya is reluctantly but inevitably persuaded that Carlton's conspiracy theories might have some truth to them, the two butt heads both against the police chief and his assistant, and two Homeland Security officers.

Tanya is Storm Large in 20 years, a raucous bad girl with fading looks and a dirty mouth—an unlikely revolutionary, as the show delights in pointing out. We're meant to cheer when she comes out guns blazing, but the show's real strengths are its smaller character movements—Homeland Security sidekick (Blake DeLong) fretting that his partner doesn't respect him, or the deliberations of a small-town police chief (Tim True) in the face of government pressure. For all the gunfire and high-volume shouting, the real intrigue here is the idea that bureaucracy persists even in the face of government shutdown—that some people will continue "just following orders" even when it's no longer clear what the orders are, or who's issuing them. ALISON HALLETT

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