FORGET PLANT METAPHORS—Portland's Fertile Ground festival is a many-headed beast of a thing, an unruly and unpredictable entry in the annual arts calendar.
The only requirement for inclusion in the 11-day performance festival is that work be new and Portland-generated. There's no "quality control"; the festival is uncurated, meaning that any artist who meets the application deadline will wind up in the festival program. This results in a crazily varied lineup, where work from high-profile, established theaters rubs elbows with fly-by-night production companies that we may never hear from again.
With nearly 100 total projects, it can be a tricky festival to navigate—but at only $50 for a pass to the entire thing, a relatively small investment can pay off big time. The trick is to anchor your fest experience in a few shows you're really excited about, and take a chance on a couple of intriguing unknowns. (Also, don't be afraid to leave during intermission.) The festival is too big to preview comprehensively, but here are a few shows that caught our eye. To peruse the program yourself, see fertilegroundpdx.org.
THE BIG SHOTS
If you want to play it conservatively—and I'm not saying you should, mind—a Fertile Ground pass is a cheap way to snag seats at some of Portland's best theaters.
The Lost Boy—Taking the term "media circus" a bit too literally, The Lost Boy is about the 1874 kidnapping of little Charley Ross. While its subject matter is interesting enough, the show awkwardly toggles between melodrama and circus-tent hijinks, never quite finding its footing. Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, Tues-Sun 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Feb 10, $20-45, artistsrep.org
A Noble Failure—If you've got any beleaguered educators in your life, take 'em to see this show about how one high school is subjected to administrative meddling, arbitrary testing, and financial woes. Unfortunately, clichéd characters bog down a script that has plenty of solid points to make about the state of our education system. Third Rail Repertory Theatre at the Winningstad, 1111 SW Broadway, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Feb 3, $22-41, thirdrailrep.org
The Huntsmen—See review.
Something's Got Ahold of My Heart—The last time Hand2Mouth debuted a show at Fertile Ground, it was the excellent My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow. Now one of Portland's most consistently exciting ensembles returns with an examination of modern love. Hand2Mouth at Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont, opens Thurs Jan 31, Thurs-Sun 8 pm, through Feb 17, $12-20, hand2mouththeatre.org
International Falls—One of the shows I'm most looking forward to, the CoHo's two-person show (featuring great locals Laura Faye Smith and Isaac Lamb) is about a stand-up comedian and an unhappy motel desk clerk. CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Feb 3, $20-25, cohoproductions.org
This year's festival features a few intriguing partnerships between theater producers and community organizations, promising work grounded in perspectives not typically seen on Portland stages.
Feral: Homelessness in Portland—Bruce Hostetler interviewed more than 550 homeless Portlanders to generate a "full-length narrative play" about what it's really like to live on the streets. Feral was created in partnership with JOIN, Sisters of the Road, p:ear, and other local homelessness resources. Bob White Theatre Warehouse, 6423 SE Foster, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 3 pm, through Feb 3, $12-15, compassworks.org
AwkRad—In what threatens to be Fertile Ground's most adorable offering, Robert Gray Middle School and a cast of actors ages 11-17 join forces with Portland storyteller auGi for a high-school romcom set in the '80s. Adorable, right??? (Sorry, middle schoolers—everything you do is cute to us.) Eliot Center at First Unitarian Church, 1011 SW 12th, Fri-Sat 6:30 pm, plus Sun Feb 3, 3 pm, $7-10, graypta.org
SONG AND DANCE
Fertile Ground is more than just talking—Portland's musical theater and dance communities are in on the action.
4 x 4 = 8 Musicals—Taking a cue from Portland's popular 10 Tiny Dances series, 8 Musicals offers musical theater producers 10 minutes on a 4' x 4' stage. Brunish Theatre at PCPA, 1111 SW Broadway, Thurs Jan 24-Sat Jan 26, 7:30 pm, $28.25, liveonstage.us
Troll 2: The Musical—You've seen the movie, or at least you've seen the documentary about the movie—now Action/Adventure presents a staged reading of Troll 2: The Musical, a years-in-the-making adaptation of the notoriously awful 1990 film about vegetarian goblins. Action/Adventure Theatre, 1050 SE Clinton, Tues Jan 29, 7 pm, $10, actionadventure.org
Groovin' Greenhouse—Polaris Dance Theatre presents three nights of curated dance premieres from established and emerging choreographers. Polaris Dance Theatre, 1501 SW Taylor, Thurs Jan 31-Fri Feb 1, 7:30 pm, Sat Feb 2, 7 pm, $10-15, polarisdance.org
David Saffert's Birthday Bashtravaganza! Die More Hard—When talented pianist/amateur Ellen DeGeneres impersonator David Saffert throws himself a birthday party, ballet dancers, opera singers, dancers, and more get in on the fun. Per the press release, "If you don't want your kids learning any new words, don't bring 'em." Curious Comedy Theater, 5225 NE MLK, Fri-Sat 7:30 pm, through Feb 2, $12-15, curiouscomedy.org
Oh Fuck! Oh Shit! It's Love! The Musical
Local playwright organization PDX Playwrights is hosting a handful of staged readings during the festival, including what promises to be "a hyper-vulgar examination of relationships couched in the optimistic tone of musical theater." w/Whipping Cream and Freudian Dreams, Hipbone Studio, 1847 E Burnside, Sun Feb 3, 8 pm, $10, pdxplaywrights.org