Groovin’ Greenhouse 1
Fertile Ground is best known for its showcases of new theater works, but the festival also nurtures dance in development in its Groovin' Greenhouse series. This year, the innovative Polaris Dance Theater offered its Goose Hollow studio theater space to a dozen presenters over five different shows. Beat Bangerz led off the first on Jan. 21 with its mix of traditional tap rhythms and contemporary sounds, which the group calls “sounds of funk tap” but occasionally veered into what might be called “tap hop.” The high energy performances mixed experienced and amateur performers, ingratiating choreography by Damon Keller, Erin Lee, Hillary Hart and Shannon Wilcox, and a casual vibe that seemed to invite everyone to give it a try. Clearly tap has a place in the 21st century. 

PDX Dance Collective followed with a multi-part portrait of street living, addiction and abandonment (using what's become the all-purpose signifier of tragedy, Samuel Barber's Adagio for String Orchestra and other music) that, despite sometimes bearing its thematic burden heavily, makes me eager to see their Feb. 24-26 showcases at Headwaters Theater. 

The real gem of the evening was Portland Festival Ballet’s Fluid, which somehow created a compelling near-narrative out of classically based choreography (by Lavinia Magliocco) despite the fact that Portland composer Susan Alexjander’s gorgeous electronic score was an entirely ambient composition that originally accompanied an art installation. The resulting tension sparked a gripping tautness that either component might have otherwise lacked individually. The Greenhouse here certainly cultivated an unexpectedly sturdy hybrid.

Dear Galileo

Artists Repertory Theater’s staged reading of Claire Willett’s ambitious history science theater follows works like “Proof,” “Dr. Atomic,” “Copenhagen,” in seeking connections between universal phenomena and human behavior. The title character and his daughter (speaking snappily anachronistic early 21st century colloquial dialogue in a historically accurate situation) enact one of four stories, set in three plot lines in three different time periods, involving the relationship between a woman (or in one case a girl) and a male scientist — and in this incarnation, at least, it’s one too many. A young girl (well-played by Margaux Rajotte) defends science against her creationist father, a potentially one-dimensional role that’s instead sympathetically written and winningly played by Chris Harder. A woman long estranged from her distant scientist father (powerfully played by David Bodin) engages with his emotionally damaged one-time assistant (the charismatic Gilberto Martin del Campo). In each case, the daughter’s role is to push a male scientist from distant abstraction to human connection. 

It's a potent, important idea, and Willett's smart concept and attractive characters display real potential. But setting up and manipulating so many storylines and explanations requires over-obvious plot machinery and extreme dramatic compression that results in climactic moments whose validity doesn't quite ring true because they haven't really been earned. There's just not enough stage time to properly develop so many relationships, so we wind up with too many potentially compelling characters (particularly the emerging love story that really fuels the whole plot) never escaping stereotype. 

Willett cleverly uses various devices to make the constant exposition as painless as possible without apologizing for it. For example, modern astrophysics are explained by making a major character a physics prof giving a lecture, which is static but not as artificial as it likely would have been if he'd conveyed the information in dialogue. Although they're really more a plot device than an essential dramatic element here, the physics are accurately described, easily digestible and nothing new for anyone who reads anything at all about science; last fall's Secrets of the Universe series on the PBS program Nova gives you all the background info you need to understand science's centuries-long quest to answer the basic questions of existence. In this scientifically, dramatically, and emotionally intelligent play in progress, Willett's next challenge is to solve a similarly fascinating theatrical equation that, at this stage, may have one too many variables to work onstage.

The Penguins of Ithaca

Readers Theatre Repertory's staged reading of David Berkson's melancholy comedy runs a real risk: an initially unsympathetic, self-pitying narcissist protagonist gains self-knowledge from a dying child, with lots of literary references. But every time bathos or sentimentality threaten to swell, Berkson punctures it with deft humor. He's aided by a superb cast led by Jonah Weston in what could be a breakthrough role — or rather roles, as he and Jamie Rea persuasively (and winkingly) play a number of characters from EJ's past that haunt his memories (and sometimes overpower his role). In best mid-period Woody Allen fashion, they function as funnier, smarter fantasy foils for their delusional creator in a series of sometimes ruefully humorous encounters. The humor recedes as EJ's (Jason Maniccia) self awareness grows. Some of the relationships, like EJ's with his mother, seem underdeveloped or inconsequential at this stage of the play's development, and the story could use another scene that solidifies the dramatic stakes in EJ's relationship with the youngster (played by different actors) he's trying to help, but it's already clear that this play deserves a full, probably minimally staged production—preferably with these players.