Keeping up with the modern news cycle feels vital right now, as we grapple with the rapidly changing world around us. But news briefs and breakdowns don’t always lead to understanding. Often art plays an important role, pushing us out of our comfort zones and presenting perspectives we might not otherwise discover. That’s why Fertile Ground, the 11-day festival of new theater work (this year celebrating its 10th anniversary!), is something Portlanders should heed and treasure.
Tucked amid more traditional small-stage fare—like Lawrence Howard’s monologue about the doomed 1914 trans-arctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare (The Old Church, Fri Jan 25 & Sat Jan 26, 8 pm), or Sarah Fay Goldman’s performance art piece, Tether (Headwaters Theatre, Thurs Jan 24 & Sun 27, 6 pm; Fri Jan 25, 8 pm, Sat Jan 26, 10 pm; Sun Jan 27, 2 pm), where she reckons with ADHD using bondage—this year’s true riches are the new theater pieces built from the echoes of our own current epoch.
Most of the works are overt in their political commentary. Stephanie Alison Walker’s Friends with Guns (Chapel Theatre, Thurs Jan 31-Sat Feb 2, 7:30 pm, Thurs Feb 3, 2 pm) looks at the gun-control debate through the discussion of a pair of well-meaning couples, while Vortex I (McMenamins Mission Theater, Mon Jan 28, 7 pm), a musical written in part by synthpop band Animotion leader Bill Wadhams, is set during the ’70s protests against Nixon at Portland State University.
Fertile Ground’s most fascinating works aim for nuanced and artful reflection of the world circa 2019. I’m particularly curious about the plays and performances tackling complex issues of gender, sexuality, and sexual agency. Rebecca Petchenik’s Kait (Hipbone Theater, Sun Feb 3, 2 pm) takes the discussion in a sci-fi direction: the play, which will be performed as a staged reading, deals with an animatronic sex doll that kills its abusive owner. The various wrinkles of consent and the future of AI are shaded even further by the fact that Petchenik chose an all-female cast for this debut reading.
Surrounding thesae similar themes, the one-woman show I Am An Actress (Headwaters Theatre, Thurs Jan 24, 8 pm; Fri Jan 25, 10 pm; Sat Jan 26, 6 pm) finds writer/performer Jane Comer playing herself and her mother as the two try to reach some kind of understanding while dealing with the younger Comer’s desire to act and gender dysphoria (Jane is a trans woman). This piece, returning to the festival after a workshop run in 2017, has private resonance for its creator, but Comer’s other interest, she recently said, is to continue to increase the visibility of trans people.
Caitlin Beckwith-Ferguson adds yet another layer to the discussion with her one-woman play I’m A Slut, Sababa! (Hipbone Theater, Sat Feb 2, 9 pm; Sun Feb 3, 7 pm). The core of the work was built from her experiences living and dating in Israel, but grew into something much bigger as she started to weave in stories she accumulated from interviews with nearly two-dozen Israeli women. Beckwith-Ferguson takes on the guise of five different characters, using their voices to delve into the often-rough consort of Judaism and feminism.
Fertile Ground’s success over the past decade is a result of celebrating voices that aren’t often heard in theater settings. This year, that includes a group of young men in the Donald E. Long Detention Center who, with the help of the Rogue Pack Youth Theater, wrote a play about being incarcerated, Creating Life Inside (Sellwood Playhouse, Fri Jan 25 & Sat Jan 26, Fri Feb 1 & Sat Feb 2, 7:30 pm). No matter where you align with the politics of these experiences, hearing the stories and seeing the works of these budding and established artists is bound to expand your understanding of the world.