This week marks the beginning of the ninth Fertile Ground Festival. A citywide festival of new theater, dance and comedy, it features works that range from fully staged premieres by well-established companies to readings of scripts by newly minted playwrights. And since the only requirements are that works be new and written by Portland artists, basically anything goes.
Although the festival doesn't begin in full until Thursday, two fully staged shows have already premiered: CoHo's db and Milagro's El Payaso. Though they have their ups and downs, both shows exhibit the most significant characteristic that Fertile Ground's open format encourages: unabashed ambition, whether for their unconventional plot structure or activist intentions.
Toward the end of db, a narrator's voice played over the sound system rejects D.B. Cooper's status as a folk hero.
"Now copied by terrorists, [D.B. Cooper is loved by] libertarians probably as a misguided attempt to compensate for their personal lives."
But db is not out to sum up Cooper's legacy. In 1971, using a bomb in his suitcase as collateral, Cooper held a plane hostage on a flight between Portland and Seattle, collected $200,000 in ransom, and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen again.
The decades long FBI search was officially called off only last summer, and basically all that's known of Cooper's identity or life is what happened on the plane. So instead of battling Cooper's ambiguity (the thing most people find so fascinating about his story), db imagines three versions of him. In one back story, he's played by Duffy Epstein and remembered through therapy by his niece (Alex Ramirez), who he used to flirt with. In another, he's played by Dana Green, and is a Vietnam vet who needs the money for a sex change.
The show, which alternates between theoretical back stories and the scene of the hijacking, provides the most definition to Tina (Rebecca Lingafelter), the stewardess who mediates Cooper's demands. Even she seems to have a hard time deciding how to feel about Cooper. Though she's clearly terrified, Tina is also caught up in the adventure, and in one scene, has a heart-to-heart with the hijacker.
With a nonlinear narrative that rapidly and seamlessly flips between scenes, db can feel overwhelming. The fast pace is impressive, though, and the changes in setting manage to be fairly convincing, even though there's often little more than lighting changes across the retro, wood-paneled set to let you know whether the actors are on a plane or in a living room.
By the time db is over, it all feels a bit like a blur. That sort of seems like the point, though: You can take away whatever you want from the show, but it seems more interested in complication than clarity.
It's not long into El Payaso before the play's main message is explicitly stated. Elías' teacher (Danielle Pecoff) is trying to persuade him to take an interest in the research paper he's been assigned on the late Portlander and humanitarian Ben Linder. But Elías (Marlon Jiménez Oviedo) resists.
"We have a president who wants to destroy families," says Elías. "I just can't get into some guy from the '80s."
"I want you to see how the mistakes of the past affect the future," his teacher replies.
Linder, an engineer, helped provide electricity and medical aid to a war zone in Nicaragua, and entertained the village where he lived by clowning. After he was killed by U.S.-backed Contras, Linder became a political symbol to Americans already uneasy about the Reagan administration's involvement in the conflict.
But El Payaso is more interested in Linder as an example of courageous goodwill than as a casualty of government wrongdoing. Intended as an educational play, El Payaso is steadfast in its message, but it's also plenty goofy. The argument between Elías and his teacher is eventually settled by a scholarship application that's abruptly launched onstage from under the backdrop. His Linder essay wins him the scholarship, which funds a trip to Nicaragua where he somehow travels back in time to assist Linder in his humanitarian efforts.
There's plenty of whimsical montages and miming to provide an outlet for the show's physical humor, but they also allow director Georgina Escobar to flesh out the sparse setting with imaginative staging.
El Payaso might be campy, if it weren't for its proud lack of irony. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it doesn't back down from its message, either.
What to see during the first half of Fertile Ground:
An adaptation of Peter Stark's critically renowned nonfiction book, Portland Center Stage's Astoria is about Jacob Astor's Jefferson-era attempt to set up a fur trading empire in the Pacific Northwest. The play will premiere in two parts over the course of two seasons, and Part One focuses on the perilous journey to Astoria.
From the arts collective Broken Planetarium, Atlantis is a folk opera about a friendship between two folk singers in an underwater Manhattan where New Yorkers have gills.
Vanport Mosaic's contribution to Fertile Ground is a staged reading of a play that centers on a boxing club owner, Ty, amid the gentrification of an African-American community in 1970s Portland.
William Shakespeare's Fools
Clown and scholar Michael O'Neil's one-man show pays homage to the clowns and fools in the Bard's plays.
SEE IT: Fertile Ground is Jan. 19-29. See fertilegroundpdx.org for the full schedule. Passes $50, individual tickets available.