"When I was little, my parents would send me to time out. Time out became a meditation. Time out evolved into an escape from punishment and shame. Alone with my thoughts, the wooden baseboards came alive with great sand dunes and mountains of a strange land I could explore."
Those words are spoken by host Gerrin Mitchell in Prismagic Radio Hour, one of the most ebullient entries in Fertile Ground—and they sum up the state of the event in 2021. COVID-19 may have forced the annual festival of new works to go virtual, but that hasn't stopped its artists from unleashing vibrant colors, emotions, stories and thoughts. The world may be in time out, but Fertile Ground is as alive as ever, and starting this week, programming streams on Facebook and YouTube for free.
One way of transcending the limitations of a lockdown is to blitz your audience with comedy, movement and magic tricks. That philosophy fuels Prismagic Radio Hour, a variety show created by the circus company Prismagic Events that debuts Feb. 5. It's defined by the dizzying acrobatics of Alison Lockfeld and Prismagic co-founder Petra Delarocha, but my favorite part of the show was Kristin Schier's performance as a "Junior Star" who wants to make the wishes of mortals come true.
For her part in Prismagic, Schier wears a spiky star costume and chats on the phone with humans who share fears and hopes with her. Whether singing the praises of the moon or explaining why it's never too late to become a cowgirl, she sparkles with moving sincerity. Her performance fits the show, which soothes you with its sweet playfulness.
If you're in the mood for more biting entertainment, try Myhraliza Aala's Oh Myh Dating Hell, premiering Jan. 28. Aala stars as Myh, a professor suffering through dating-app disasters that will be familiar to anyone who has endured the rituals of cyber-courtship. Her toughness, vulnerability and wit are the heart of the project, but the cast is filled with splendid supporting players, including Christina Uyeno as a savvy friend who explains what "Netflix and chill"' actually means, and Nick Serrone as an unexpectedly human heartthrob.
Inspired by experience, Aala spikes Oh Myh Dating Hell with brutally funny and honest vignettes (in one scene, a man admits he uses an app called Guys Who Read because he thinks women who read are "hard up"). If Aala has a superpower, it's her gift for being personal and specific. The project isn't just about romance—it's about Myh being stranded in the void between the expectations of her conservative Filipino parents and the realities of online dating.
Aala isn't the only Fertile Ground artist who bears her soul to the screen. Alissa Jessup dives into the depths of her family's history in her one-woman show Chosen, the finest work from the festival I've seen in previews so far, which streams Feb. 7. Jessup has been a gloriously caustic and charismatic presence in plays like In the Wake and Sweat, but as I watched her tell us about Donna—her biological mother—I realized that until now, I hadn't fully understood what she was capable of.
Chosen chronicles a trip Jessup took to Colfax, Wash., where she first met Donna. I expected the journey to lead to a rumination on nature and nurture, but Jessup has no time for binary simplicities—her performance overflows with love for both the mother who raised her and the mother who gave birth to her. Spoiling the rest of Chosen would be abominable, which is just as well—the show is difficult to talk about, think about or write about without weeping.
While Fertile Ground 2021 is destined to be binged, you should probably step away from your TV or computer after watching Chosen and meditate on what you've seen. And when you return, you might want to try some of the festival's shorter works, like Lilies, a dreamy experimental film about being queer in a post-COVID world, premiering Feb. 3, and Livin' in the Light, an ecstatic music video starring Portland Opera singer Emmanuel "Onry" Henreid that streams Feb. 6.
With its gleaming images of natural beauty—flowers, sand, trees, water—Livin' in the Light reminds you that at its best, Fertile Ground opens up your world. The message from Henreid and the festival itself is unspoken but unmistakable: May we all live in the light, in 2021 and beyond.
SEE IT: Fertile Ground streams on Facebook and YouTube. You can access those platforms at fertilegroundpdx.org. Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 28-Feb. 7. Free.