Navigating the annual Fertile Ground festival can feel like cultivating a phenomenally overgrown garden. There are a few things you want (kale, raspberries, butterflies), but also many you don't (weeds, slugs, all that extra zucchini). That's the thing about the 11-day spree of new local works: Because it's an uncurated festival, anyone can mount a show. Presenters range from some of the city's bigger theater and dance companies to troupes that disappear once the fest closes. The result is a dizzying range in style, subject and, well, quality. Still, at only $50 for an unlimited festival pass (events are also individually ticketed), you learn to deal with some mealy tomatoes alongside the perfect plums. Among the fully staged world premieres, workshop productions and stripped-down readings—there are more than 50 events this year—here are a few worth checking out. For more, turn to Performance listings.
Amy Freed isn't worried about calling her new play a screed. A comedy about a megalomaniacal architect, Freed likens The Monster-Builder to "an exaggerated political cartoon." That very hyperbole, Freed hopes, will spur impassioned conversation among the audience.
"The public nature of architecture gives that aesthetic plenty of room to voice its opinion," says the playwright, whose 1998 dark comedy Freedomland was a Pulitzer finalist. "Its existence is its opinion. Most of us are fed in and out of these urban systems that are so much bigger than we are. I wasn't worried about being too nuanced because the dialogue is so one-sided already."
In the absence of nuance, The Monster-Builder introduces us to an architect named Gregor Zubrowski, an eccentric Faustian madman intent on destroying a beloved building and erecting an 80-story tower capped with golden spikes. As a child, Freed had some exposure to this world—her dad was an architect for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the major modernist firm behind the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. (The family's own home, meanwhile, was a "falling-down version of a Frank Lloyd Wright house.") She grew up observing the way the clean lines of modernism—the "less is more" philosophy of architects like Mies van der Rohe—mutated into the vulgar ornamentation of postmodernism (for a sterling example, look no further than this city's much-maligned Portland Building). More recently, the San Francisco resident has seen the way gleaming mega-developments have gone up there.
"We seem to have failed at figuring out what is an enduring and successful direction for big buildings," Freed says. "These are places that have very little sense of dignity or control."
The Monster-Builder, which begins previews Tuesday, Jan. 28, and opens Saturday, Feb. 1, is Freed's way of voicing her strident opposition. And Portland, she says, is an ideal place for the play's premiere, precisely because such glass-and-steel skyscrapers haven't begun to rise here. "Portland's reputation for livability is part and parcel of the architectural containment," she says. "You should be wary when the dark pall that's been cast over San Francisco starts looking your way." REBECCA JACOBSON. Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays and 2 pm Sundays, Jan. 28-March 2. $25-$55.
American King Umps
Don Wilson Glenn's grandmother used to tell him stories about Umps. Umps was Glenn's great-great-grandfather, who'd been born into slavery in Arkansas in 1834. Emancipated in Texas after the Civil War, Umps gained legendary status in the family's folklore: According to a particularly apocryphal story, he once played the fiddle all day and night to escape a beating by his master. Glenn, who was born in east Texas and returned there from New York to care for his bard of a grandmother—she's now 109 and in "wonderful condition," Glenn says—always saw Umps as a heroic character.
For Glenn's new play, he has fictionalized Umps and placed him in a tale of self-determination and triumph. Like his earlier play American Menu, which takes place after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., American King Umps paints a personal story against a broader historical backdrop. Here, the end of the Civil War is imminent, and a slave master has abandoned his cotton plantation in Texas. The slaves, left to govern themselves, disagree whether they should remain in America or return to Africa. Glenn describes the play as high comedy—he balked at the idea of writing anything too bleak—mingled with elements of Elizabethan theater. While reading slave narratives, he uncovered threads that reminded him of Shakespeare, so the new play draws on both The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream: The plot is inflected with starstruck romance, confused identities and the mysticism of nature.
"As the play moves into the nighttime, you have these characters running around like ghosts," Glenn says. "As time progresses, things become a bit more mysterious and a bit cloudier onstage, but by the end it unfolds itself as all the classic Shakespearean plays do to reveal the mysteries of what's going on." REBECCA JACOBSON. Ethos/IFCC, 5340 N Interstate Ave., 283-8467. 7 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 pm Sundays, Jan. 30-Feb. 16. $10-$20.
Picture Sentence Picture
Picture Sentence Picture—aside from being the format for all BuzzFeed articles—is a game. It's a cross between telephone and Pictionary that, before Cards Against Humanity, was the preferred activity for any group of people baked out of their minds. To play, one person writes a sentence on a sheet of paper and passes it to the next person, who draws a picture based on the sentence. That person then passes it to the next player, who writes another sentence based on the drawing, and so on—all hopefully to hilarious effect.
Members of dance company TriptheDark, known for its casual, non-captive shows in bars, played this game on a weekend trip in May to Rockaway Beach, during which the Jameson and white wine flowed freely. When the trip was over, co-founders Corinn deWaard and Stephanie Seaman revealed to the group a surprise: The game would be the inspiration for their newest dance piece, which premieres at the Analog Cafe on Sunday, Feb. 2.
The pictures and sentences—things like, "The ghost took over the earth, and the Kool-Aid Man was sad"—are interpreted through the lens of yet another inspiration, a short story by Portland author Andrew Dickson. It's only 242 words and read at the beginning of the show, but the tale about hedge-fund managers and doppelgängers is so convoluted it's impossible to follow. So when the six dancers, wearing neckties and white masks, enact the story alongside drunken conjurings like the Kool-Aid Man, the audience is bound to get lost. That's OK, Seaman says, because "interpretation is what it's all about."
And, deWaard adds, it's also about fun: "Our shows usually don't make much sense to the audience anyway." AARON SPENCER. The Analog Cafe, 720 SE Hawthorne Blvd., tripthedark.com. 7 pm Saturdays-Sundays, Feb. 2-15. $15.
SEE IT: The Fertile Ground festival runs Jan. 23-Feb. 2 at venues across Portland. Full-festival passes are $50. Visit fertilegroundpdx.org for details.