IT'S EASY to think of summer as dead time for Portland theater. But that sentiment, while not wholly unearned—how many Shakespeare productions can one woman take?—ignores a whole slew of innovative performances that only arrives once the regular theater season is over.
Consider: Summer in Portland begins with the Risk/Reward Festival and ends with PICA's Time-Based Art Festival. In between, CoHo Productions' Summerfest is yet another chance to see something outside the more traditional offerings of prime time, as the company deviates from its usual programming in favor of four shows running over four weekends, which are likely to have more in common with performance art than the reanimated corpse of Thornton Wilder (not that there's anything wrong with that).
This year's festival opened promisingly last week with Australian theater artist and comedian Emily June Newton's Frank: To Be Frank, in which an aging celebrity shares his remembrances with his adoring public. Frank is many things: a solo show that's actually good; a revisionist history of the Rat Pack; the name of a lecherous old man played by a grinning, scowling, twirling woman; a string of absurd participatory dance moves ("Jane Fonda!" "Pineapple!") and nonsensical songs ("Beautiful fabrics," bellows Newton at one point, her eyes wide with expectation. "BEAUTIFUL FABRICS!"). There's no shortage of mild audience participation, as when "Frank" distributes artificial flowers to audience members and then requests that they be thrown on the stage as she bows grandly. The performance I attended made for an improbably charming study of narcissism and fame, and made better use of its hour-long runtime than many full-length productions I saw during the "regular" theater season.
Summerfest continues through July 17, when it concludes with Kelly Kinsella's When Thoughts Attack, about an anxious woman trying to order lunch, a premise so mundanely fraught I can't wait to see it. The lineup also includes A Little Bit Off's Bella Culpa, a slapstick comedy about great-house servants. And this year, Summerfest will have one thing in common with every other goddamn theater: There's one Shakespeare adaptation, although it isn't a play, but the poem "Venus and Adonis," which Shakespeare based on a section of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and includes a literal sex goddess and a goring by boar, and is notable for containing some of the writer's most explicit material. Shaking the Tree's Venus and Adonis begins its weekend run this Thursday, June 30. I got kind of bored with Shakespeare last summer, but with Portland theater regulars Rebecca Ridenour and Matthew Kerrigan in the lead roles, and direction from Shaking the Tree's Samantha Van Der Merwe, this dose of Shakespeare should be a welcome alternative to its in-the-park brethren.
At $30 to $60 for a festival pass and with a reputation for brief, exciting performances, it's difficult to see a downside to Summerfest. It's low commitment, and the evening I attended it had an atmosphere that was almost casual, a quality that belies the buttoned-up vibe at other venues, where I often find I'm the youngest person in attendance. I suspect that many people who avoid live theater do so out of a justified fear of potential boredom, and though there's no telling what Summerfest's final three weekends have in store, I can assure you it'll probably be weird, and at the very least, it'll be unlike what you see on stages across the city throughout the year.