PATRICK WEISHAMPEL

Portland is pretty tolerant of terrible art. Someone made it, the thinking goes, therefore it must have value. But while this permissiveness is harmless enough when it comes to hand-knitted tree-warmers or cat toys made of repurposed diaphragms, live performance is something else entirely: Anyone who's sat through a truly bad production can tell you that it's a uniquely demoralizing experience.

The Fertile Ground festival bumps up against just this problem. Now in its fourth year, the festival's stated goal is to "provide a platform for Portland theater companies to showcase their commitment to new work." Local performers have enthusiastically taken up that challenge—this year, Fertile Ground boasts more than 100 shows, staged readings, and workshop productions, including 16 fully staged world premieres (up from eight in the festival's first year).

But there's a catch: Fertile Ground is essentially a local fringe festival, and as such is entirely uncurated, making no claims as to the quality of work it showcases. This can be daunting, especially if you've been burned by bad theater before—but trust us, there are plenty of reasons to take a chance on a festival pass, not least the possibility of witnessing the birth of another success story like Road House: The Play!, which debuted at Fertile Ground two years ago. Plus, passes are a relative bargain at $50. Here are a handful of our festival picks; we'll also be dishing up festival coverage and commentary at blogtown.portlandmercury.com.

(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi—Artists Rep premieres a re-imagining of John Webster's classic tale of murder, sex, and betrayal. This one promises a heavy hand with sex, gore, and splatter. Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, see artistsrep.org for dates and showtimes, through Feb 12

The North Plan—Portland Center Stage presents the story of a government bureaucrat being hunted into the Ozarks, where his only allies are alcoholic recidivists who believe Lynyrd Skynyrd should be on American currency. Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 NW 11th, pcs.org for dates and showtimes, through Feb 5

Famished—Fretting about food is something of a local pastime, as Portlanders devise increasingly complicated dietary solutions to ethical and digestive conundrums. Portland Playhouse examines the literal and metaphorical underpinnings of all this picky eating. Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Feb 12, portlandplayhouse.org

Dear Galileo—This staged reading explores the conflicts between science and religion as experienced by three women in three different time periods. Artists Repertory Theatre's Morrison Stage, 1515 SW Morrison, Sat Jan 21, 2 pm, Mon Jan 23, 7:30 pm, artistsrep.org

Something's Got Ahold of My Heart—The lifespan of a Hand2Mouth show includes months of workshopping and revisions; their new production explores both the representations and the realities of love and commitment. The Mouth at Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont, Fri Jan 27-Sun Jan 29, 7 pm, hand2mouththeatre.org

Big Plastic Heroes—Performers auGi and Slash Coleman pair two like-minded stories of nerdy childhoods spent idolizing larger-than-life action heroes. The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy, bigplasticheroes.com for dates and times, through Feb 4

4X4=8 Musicals—Inspired by the popular series 10 Tiny Dances, 4x4=8 Musicals features eight original, 10-minute musicals presented on a four-by-four-foot stage. CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, Thurs Jan 26-Sat Jan 28, 7:30 pm, liveonstage.us