In January’s fallow arts season, let us sing the praises of Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new theater, which returns this week. It’s important to know going in that Fertile Ground is uncurated, which means some of what’s on offer will be weird, untested, and—in the absolute worst cases—middle school-play levels of godawful. I know; I’ve seen it. I’ve also seen gems that have stayed with me long after. (Plus, you can always walk out. No shame.)
Fertile Ground happens to be one of Portland’s most accessible arts festivals, and in a town where a lack of reasonably priced space has forced many local arts groups to reconfigure or fold altogether, a theater festival with an open-door policy for anyone making almost anything is practically a public service. It’s also some of the cheapest theater out there: Many individual tickets to Fertile Ground shows go for less than $20, and a festival pass gets you into everything for only $50 (for comparison, that’s often the cost of a single ticket at an established company during peak theater season). Here are a few solid shows to put at the top of your list.
In previous years, Laura Christina Dunn and her arts collective, the Broken Planetarium, have brought well-received, women-focused, avant-leaning adaptations of The Snow Queen and Frankenstein to Fertile Ground. This time, Dunn turns her attention to the real-life story of Polish-Jewish socialist revolutionary and philosopher Rosa Luxemburg with Rosa Red. Dunn’s script—which will be read at Fertile Ground ahead of a fully-staged run this May—was specifically inspired by letters Luxemburg wrote during a stint in prison. The year after, Luxemburg would be executed by a German paramilitary group after inciting a socialist uprising in Berlin. The letters’ recipient, a German housewife named Sophie Liebknecht, also makes an appearance in Rosa Red. Luxemburg is one of those historical figures who aren’t particularly well understood; hopefully this production—with its focus on friendship between women and the collision between domesticity and politics—will change that. My Voice Music, 538 SE Ash, Sat Jan 20, 4 pm; Sun Jan 21, 2 pm; Wed Jan 24-Thurs Jan 25, 8 pm; sold out
Sex We Can! An Erotic Uprising
Sex-positive theater artist, canny producer, and all-around nice person Eleanor O’Brien almost always premieres something new at Fertile Ground, and this year is no exception. The title of her latest project is a little too punny for my no-fun taste (I also have a hard time ordering out loud at Fried Egg I’m in Love, it’s a problem), but the content should be fresh and necessary. O’Brien and her fellow performers will contextualize sexual freedom as a means of rebellion—“Sex as medicine, sex as community, sex as the antidote to capitalism”—and envision a healthier, happier sexual paradigm than the one we’re living in now, as the #MeToo movement reveals the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment and reminds us on a near-daily basis that all of our faves are problematic. (Or maybe not all of them? But to be fair, it is a lot.) As we finally begin to have a real national conversation about America’s longstanding dysfunctional relationship to sex, there aren’t many self-described sex-positive theater creators out there who I’d trust to help us heal and process (see: “no fun,” above). But I trust O’Brien. I’m for sure going to this, because I’m a woman who writes for the internet. I know what the problems look like. I’m ready to talk about solutions. Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton, Thurs Jan 25-Sat 27, 8 pm, $15-25
Uncle Vanya—Scenes from Life in the Country in Four Acts
Tricks! I’ve seen this show already, because it opened early. But my gain is also yours, because this new adaptation of Uncle Vanya from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) is much better, more visually interesting, and funnier than the agèd workhorse of Sad Russian Plays has any right to be, thanks to a new translation by Lewis & Clark’s Štpán Šimek, wise casting, inventive staging that includes almost-continuous live music led by Chervona’s Andrei Temkin, and an ambitious set design.
I honestly dreaded seeing this play, but despite the chatty couple sitting next to me and a lady who took multiple photos of the stage during the performance using her iPad—yes, on the inside I am a 75-year-old hermit—I had a very pleasant time. Uncle Vanya’s themes of fragile masculinity, fucked-up family dynamics, rampant alcoholism, and emotional labor are depressingly timely, Šimek’s script is inventive and even funny, and the cast is stacked with Portland theater veterans. Blink and you’ll miss the under-utilized Maureen Porter as Maman! Amber Whitehall is also great as Yelena, a young woman whose choices have been severely limited by her marriage to the old and apparently rheumatic Professor Serebryakov (the excellent Victor Mack, last seen killing it as August Wilson in Portland Playhouse’s How I Learned What I Learned). As Vanya and his niece, Sonia, Jacob Coleman and Joellen Sweeney embody the young and old poles of a lifelong spectrum of existential anxiety. This play also made me laugh? I left grateful and confused. I hope you do too. But please, out of respect to your fellow theater patrons, leave the iPad at home. Diver Studio Theatre, Performing Arts Building, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock, Thurs Jan 18-Sun Jan 21, 7:30 pm, $25-30