David Berkson

Fertile Ground reviews: Solo showcases

Single-performer shows highlight Portland's valuable annual new theater works festival

“It takes a great team to create a one-person show,” writes creator/performer Sam Reiter in her program notes to Baba Yaga. The same sentiment was expressed by just about every other writer of the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work shows I saw that relied on a single performer to carry the story onstage. Maybe that teamwork — a hallmark of Portland creativity — helps explain why so many were so surprisingly successful. Whether it’s thanks to the author of a book or play adapted into a FG production, the various shows’ directors, designers, or other backstage contributors, these apparent solo vehicles reflect productive creative collaborations.

Baba Yaga

Reiter herself portrays several characters in her triumphant show at Portland’s intimate Headwaters Theatre, using the notorious mythical crone as a narrator who frames several tales, with Reiter deftly shifting roles as easily as she doffs her babushka, sometimes shedding decades of life experience in the process. And even though Baba Yaga is Reiter’s story, crafted over the past couple years during her studies at Lewis & Clark College and Moscow Art Theatre, she does receive abundant assistance from director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, lighting designer/tech director Corey McCarey, and especially actor/graphic designer/shadow puppeteer Robert Amico, whose silent shadow, projected onto screens, portrays various characters and whose gorgeous designs really enhance the mythological atmosphere.

“Baba Yaga is at once kind and cruel, amoral and material, helpful and hindering,” Reiter writes. “In some stories, she is either good or evil; in others, she is a mixture of both.” Reiter’s announced intention is to somehow reconcile those contradictions in the various portrayals of the infamous character from Slavic mythology — a tough challenge as the legends likely arose from different sources over centuries. And yet Reiter cleverly manages to concoct or discern a plausible character motivation for a complex archetype.

"Baba Yaga." Photo: Trevor Sargent.

“Baba Yaga.” Photo: Trevor Sargent.

To understand all may be, as the saying goes, to forgive all, but in this early incarnation of the show, Reiter may have gone a bit too far in sympathizing with her bloodthirsty protagonist, who comes off as more a relatively benign trickster than a wicked witch capable of the cannibalistic cruelty in some of the tales. Though “there’s always a risk that she will gobble you up,” Reiter’s notes explain, I never felt much risk; I wanted moments with a sharper edge, a little more blood, and maybe a bit less Portland nice in both the action recounted and Reiter’s portrayal. But she’s surely found an original and compelling angle on a complex character and a story that I hope she’ll continue to develop — abetted, of course, by the rest of her excellent creative team.

Dear Committee Members

Readers Theatre Repertory actor David Berkson also plays his character a bit Portland-nicer than the source material in his engaging premiere performance of Dear Committee Members at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, RTR’s longtime home. Berkson’s own adaptation of Julie Schumacher’s popular *link novel that skewers academic pettiness is an entirely epistolary adventure, in which he reads the letters prolifically generated by a self-styled “cantankerous pariah” English professor (tenured, of course, so he can get away with his sardonic, sometimes vitriolic missives) at a lower-tier university.

This might not sound like a promising set-up for drama, but Berkson’s performance is far more than a straight reading, as Schumacher’s novel is much more than merely a series of satirical jabs — though it is that, too. And it’s not just for veterans of academe’s absurdities and annoyances.


Fertile Ground: one last look

The sprawling new-works festival spawns some hopefuls and the thrill of the new

It’s all over but the shouting (and a few shows, such as The Monster-Builder, Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café, and The End of Sex, that continue their regular runs). Portland’s sixth annual Fertile Ground festival of new works ended its eleven-day run on Super Bowl Sunday – or Groundhog Day, if you prefer – after sprawling across the city and some of its suburbs with the hopes and dreams of hundreds of writers, directors and performers.

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, "The End of Sex." Theatre Vertigo

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, “The End of Sex.” Theatre Vertigo

For some of the dreamers, this was the end, the place where they were either satisfied they’d accomplished what they wanted to or realized they’d hit a dead end. For some, it was back to the drawing board, charged with energy to rework and refine their projects after seeing them onstage. For some, it was a chance to link up with producers or directors. For some, it was the launching of a fully formed new work.

No single person could possibly see all of the shows that were offered during Fertile Ground, although A.L. Adams made a fair stab at it, covering all sorts of them for ArtsWatch. You should check out her incisive and insightful reports. I saw a large handful, too, and decided for the most part not to write about them during the festival’s run. I wanted to get a sense of the festival itself, from its most rough-cut to its A-List attractions. The festival’s appeal, besides the chance to see so much new work, is the insight it offers into the creative process. It’s an opportunity for artists to see their work performed at crucial stages. Often, writers know their new piece isn’t ready for prime time, but having a chance to see it staged even roughly can be enormously helpful in pinpointing what is and isn’t working. A lot of those pieces aren’t ready for critical response: they’re still being formed.

Wherever I went for shows, from Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre to Northwest Academy’s little Bluebox Theater to Artists Rep and a makeshift stage at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, houses were good. Sometimes they were sold out. People were interested. It didn’t matter whether it was a first reading, a staged reading, a low-tech production or a full-out show. Audiences were excited to see the process. In that sense, Fertile Ground is a very Portland event: It asks “what are you doing?,” not “what have you done?”

A few things I saw were still too unformed to write about. Others were in a middle stage, open to a few broad observations. And a few were legitimate, finished shows.

And now, on with the observations (these are not reviews, in the traditional sense) about a few things I saw that stood out for one reason or another.


Theodore & Di, by David Berkson, Readers Theatre Repertory at Northwest Academy.

Berkson’s comic drama was a stripped-down but fully formed play, and one of the most interesting things I saw at the festival. It’s a boy-meets-girl tale (online, of course; we live in modern times) about a young film-school grad and a guy who works at a video store – one of the last, superbly and obscurely stocked indies, although he’s mostly into the porn selection. Theodore and Di are the ultimate odd couple. She’s smart and ambitious and bored with her job; he’s low-key and passive and has utterly no filters. It’s his very strangeness, his little-boy openness, that seems to attract Di, very much against her better judgment. Berkson’s script is sharply crafted and brittle: with the wrong actors, everything could fall apart. But Andy Lee-Hillstrom and especially Elizabeth Garrett get it exactly right. She has the tough task of suggesting Di’s conflicting fears and desires and sense of adventure, the emotional confusion that adds up to an unlikely attraction, and she does it beautifully. The author directs the show himself, which isn’t ordinarily a good idea, but in this case seems to have been: Theodore & Di demands a delicate balance, and Berkson knew what he wanted. Good supporting performances by Christie Drogosch as Di’s best friend and Jeffrey Arrington as one of Di’s old boyfriends round things out well. I’d like to see this show move on to a full run.


The Temporary Man, music by Scott David Bradner, lyrics and book by A.R. MacGregor, Lakewood Theatre.

This musical revolving around a hostage crisis inside an upscale restaurant is rough, with lots of unresolved issues. For one thing, does this apparently bustling business truly have only three tables? How can the disgruntled fired employee hold off all of the other tables, and everyone in the kitchen, too? And in the second act the play veers oddly into religious-symbolic territory, with its central character taking on Christlike sacrificial qualities. It’s laid on pretty thickly, where suggestion would work far better. But Bradner writes good songs, in something like a Jason Robert Brown mode, and MacGregor is an adept lyricist. Significantly, they’re both young, and their partnership seems like a good one. This play has a long way to go, mainly but not only on the book itself. But I like the partnership, which could prove more important than the play.


Carter Hall, by Claire Willett, “Flash Reads” series at Artists Rep.

This faerieland fantasy is too long and a bit imbalanced and maybe even a little unsure of what its ultimate medium ought to be, and it’s a very good bet that Willett knows all of that. This is the first time on its feet for a sprawling and ambitious project that’s in its early stages, and the “Flash Reads” series provides the writer an excellent opportunity to see where things stand and where they might go next. Carter Hall is based on the old Scottish tale of Tam Lin, kidnapped by the faeries and made into Queen Mab’s lover, and his eventual escape back to the topworld, and the question of changelings and of mercy and compassion and those other things that distinguish the human from the faerie world. Willett mixes in storytelling folk songs from Steeleye Span, and adeptly balances the modern and the ancient, and raises questions of spirituality without proselytizing, in a manner similar to the children’s authors Eloise McGraw (Moorchild) and Madeleine L’Engle (the Wrinkle in Time series). Carter Hall is at a tender stage in its development, but it’s obviously a project with great promise. During the reading’s first act I kept thinking, “Cut, cut, cut!” During the second act I switched to, “No, this is a tall tale, and it wants to ramble.” And that made me wonder whether it might fit more naturally as a novel than onstage. But it’s really too early in the process to make that sort of judgment, and Willett’s task is to make it fit whatever medium she chooses. There’s lots of work to do. But it’ll be fun to track Carter Hall’s progress.


The Truth According to Rose, by D.C. Copeland, Independent Publishing Resource Center.

Rose is the second of two short one-acts by Copeland. The shorter, opening Merrily Down the Stream, the on/off sort-of love story of a couple of high school kids, is more scant than Rose, which is the absorbing tale of an older woman dealing with the death of her husband and her own flagging desire to hang onto the world of the living. It’s a sensitive, nuanced piece, intensely observed, and in this reading the veteran Vana O’Brien inhabits it beautifully: an ideal match of performer and role. Alana Byington directs with a sure soft touch, and good support comes from Scott Parker as Rose’s husband, dropping in like a gentle ghost, and Marc Hakim as Rose’s grown son, who tries with equal gentleness to nudge her back into the everyday bustle of life. Again, it’d be good to see this get a longer run.


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