Fertile Ground: First take in a haze


The cast of Teatro Milagro's "B'aktun 13"/Courtesy Miracle Theatre

Fertile Ground started sprouting this weekend, but I found myself reeling from the scorpion’s tail of a cold bug of some sort, which scuttled my careful plans (just to use three, maybe even four, different metaphors in a single sentence, a construction I blame on the bug.)

I managed to rally Saturday afternoon for Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo,” running into organizer Nicole Lane in the process, and she said that the early reports were positive. By which she meant large crowds were showing up, and presumably, rioting audiences hadn’t seized any of the stages. If any audiences DO plan to seize the stage, please let me know in advance. I want to see that.

Last weekend I saw the opening of Teatro Milagro’s “B’aktun 13” by Danel Malan, which was technically part of Fertile Ground, and Friday night I saw Third Angle Ensemble’s “Hearing Voices,” which technically was NOT part of the festival, though it qualified, with its two world premieres. I knew things were pitting out for me during “Hearing Voices,” because I found myself concentrating on how to time my coughs to natural breaks in the musical action.

So, just to get our Fertile Ground coverage off to some kind of start, I’m going to write a little about each of these shows. Understand: I was taking some over-the-counter cold medication before I ventured forth. In fact, some of it’s rattling around my system right now. I’ll try to time my coughs to the paragraph breaks.

One more caveat: Some of the productions in this year’s Fertile Ground festival are full-scale, formal stagings. So, for example, both “The North Plan” at Portland Center Stage and “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi,” which Bob Hicks wrote about last week, are world premieres and part of the festival. We’ll feel free to take a full run at those shows. But many (maybe most) Fertile Ground plays and dances are in a preliminary state and performed as readings. So, we’ll speak in more general terms about those — we know how much they can change as they make their way toward full productions.

Willett’s “Dear Galileo” was a staged reading with some very good actors peopling the cast, so the audience could get a pretty good idea of what it might be like in future incarnations. It starts with a little girl named Haley who writes letters to the Renaissance astronomer, mostly because her Creationist father has removed her from her Catholic school, where actual science is taught, and placed her with fundamentalists who probably don’t have much time for Galileo but save most of their ire for Darwin. But quickly it becomes apparent that this is just one of three different stories that Willett is going to tell, and it doesn’t take too long figure out that they are going to be linked somehow, even though one features Galileo himself and Haley is living in the present day.

Willett is up-to-date on her science — I bet she’ll change her script if the Hadron supercollider near Geneva actually locates the Higgs bosun, or “God particle,” which theoretically gives particles their mass. Look, I don’t understand that either, but I bet Willett does, and a lot of present-day and Renaissance astrophysics makes its way smoothly into her script, and it even provides a central metaphor, one of connection at the most basic sub-atomic levels.

At last summer’s JAW new play festival, a couple of plays had a science orientation, too, and now I’m thinking that the city may need a “science theater” to stage them all. “Dear Galileo” should be in its first season.

In a way, “B’aktun 13” is also a science play, except that the science is courtesy of the Mayans, who apparently predicted that 2012 (well, they didn’t think of it as 2012, they thought of it as B’aktun 13) would be year of chaos and rebirth on earth. I say apparently simply because I’m no expert in Mayan culture or the Mayan Long Count calendar, which is fascinating but complicated.

The Teatro Milagro production, which the company will tour and so is fairly simply staged, is a mixture of archaeology, myth and the present-day stories of three Hispanic young adults, each of whom is struggling to integrate their Mexican heritage with their North American home. Malan focuses on the Mayan part of it to emphasize the ideas of chaos and rebirth, but the play is a good reminder that a modern day Mexican or Guatemalan is connected to cultural practices that go back possibly 10,000 years or so.

I was taken by the energy and commitment of the cast — Tricia Castaneda-Gonzalez, Malan, Daniel Moreno and Ajai Terrazas-Tripathi — as they moved from the prosaic reality of Woodburn, Oregon, to the whirlwind of the climax of Mayan civilization, B’aktun 13.

Even under the influence of powerful decongesting and pain-relieving agents, I could go on at great length about “Hearing Voices,” the three-part program that Third Angle performed at Kaul Auditorium on Friday night. I won’t, but I could, so long count yourself lucky!

I’m a big fan of the poetic Dickman brothers, Matthew and Michael, and they contributed the long poem “Shadows” to the good graces of composer Nalin Silva, an old classmate of theirs from high school. Silva’s soundscape, which he executed with violinist Ron Blessinger (Third Angle’s artistic director), was mostly atmospheric and abstract, melancholy like the poem, though occasionally Blessinger tossed in a recognizable melody that seemed to fit a particular section of the poem. Maybe.

So the focus was on the words, which told autobiographical stories and speculated about life in these parts. I like how rich and gooey the language is, how physical and immediate. If “Shadows” was an oil painting painted by a local painter, it would be one by Henk Pander (who opened a show with Esther Podemski at the Oregon Jewish Museum last week, by the way) — so lush it can be a little scary. And the scary opens us up to ever-deeper descriptions and speculations about our fears and our obsessions, or at least those of the Dickmans.

Mostly, I wanted to read the poem, after they finished. And then I thought: Supertitles! We need supertitles for these Third Angle experiments in music and the word.

We got a decent-sized chunk of Stephen Andrew Taylor’s opera “Paradise Lost,” libretto by Marcia Johnson from a short novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, which DID have supertitles! So, yes, we could piece together Le Guin’s cool story about a 7-generation voyage between a failed Earth and a new planet. Six generations is a long time to hold things together among a few thousand humans aboard a spacecraft. Some pretty weird stuff might happen, stuff that threatens the mission, no matter how well Zero Generation planned things.

That’s a great premise for a piece of fiction and Taylor gives it voice and orchestration as an opera. I enjoyed the urgency of the music and its construction, though a full production and some reporting would be necessary for me to understand how it works exactly. Taylor teaches at the University of Illinois, and he brought the four singers in the concert with him, all of whom performed well. The orchestra was full of Third Angle regulars, so the music was in good hands.

The opener of the concert was Tom Johnson’s “Failing, A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass,” played by Jason Schooler. It’s a delight, not so much because Johnson’s composition is THAT difficult to play, but because he asks the musician to speak as he plays, and speak normally, no matter how agitated or soothing the music becomes. And the conceit that it’s all about how the bassist fails to do this, either muffing the notes or the reading. And really, even if the bassist does both well enough to consider it a success, the bassist fails, because the piece is about “failing” not “succeeding.”

I know: Paradox. Actually, it reminded me of my Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” That one managed to trip me up most of sophomore year.

2 Responses.

  1. Vikki Mee says:

    Portland does have a science theater and it’s called OMSI. They need to be linked to this spectacular talent and the production of Dear Galileo.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      A very interesting thought! I never considered OMSI as a location for live theater, but there’s no reason not to. And I bet their grant-writers could make it so!

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