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Arts & Life


Weekend Wrap: Fertile Ground

The cast of “Make/Believe”

Patrick Weishampel

The nasty germs that prevented me from writing Weekend Wrap last weekend nearly washed out my Fertile Ground explorations altogether this year. Nearly but not quite: I rallied this weekend and saw some things, though not as many as I’d hoped, especially on the more provisional side of the schedule — the workshops and staged readings and presentations of partially completed productions. The productions in transit, in short. That’s one of the major draws of the festival for me, so it was disturbing to miss them in such great numbers.

But there’s no use crying over missed shows, because that would be silly. We’re always in the process of missing something or other, aren’t we? And one of our duties as a responsible audience member is to be fully present wherever we sit ourselves down, not thinking of the cavalcade of delights we might be missing.

So let’s just sit ourselves down for a moment…

Make/Believe, tEEth: The dance presenter White Bird commissioned the local dance/theater company tEEth to create a new work (along with Seattle’s On the Boards) on the heels of their breakout success Home Made.  This qualified the show for Fertile Ground, but more importantly it gave co-artistic directors Angelle Hebert and Phillip Kraft, who have been working together since 2000, founding tEEth in 2006, a chance to extend the work they’ve been doing to the large White Bird audience and the pristine Lincoln Hall.

And although Make/Believe had neither the intimacy nor the intense focus of Home Made, maybe it had grander scope as a compensation, and it’s not like it was lacking in intimacy or intensity.

How can I describe it briefly for you? Let’s see: four dancers, four microphones (though two to begin), bare stage, inventive lighting (Alex Gagne-Hawes), a soundscape with a variety of textures (Kraft) and a choreography (Hebert) that was episodic and built on abrupt, even spasmodic phrases that the dancers, still, could repeat.

Some of the episodes used the mikes, which were live most of the time, or the mike cords as props. In some, the lighting was the prop —  a line of light on an otherwise gloomy stage acted as a sort of “line in the sand,” for example. In the beginning sequence, the two male dancers (Noel Plemmons and Philip Elson) crawled on all fours with a mike in each of their mouths while the two female dancers bent over and laughed into the make, “giggled” really though sometimes they reached “chortled.” A sharp line of light provided a frontier of sorts for their travel, and once they traversed it, they were downstage and the production started in earnest.

Yes, mikes in the mouth, mikes between the legs, the mike cord used as a wrap for two of the dancers to such an extent that they were bound and blindfolded by it. This little duet was actually a highlight of the piece and an important “meaning carrier”: We are bound together by forces we can’t see, limited by the bonds but also defined by them and within them we find some sort of intimacy. Well, that’s how I read it, anyway.

I could go on, but the main thing that impressed me about Make/Believe was how deeply its parts meshed together, especially the sound and movement, how creatively they elaborated on each other. This sort of rigor is rare, which made Make/Believe especially satisfying. (Read a little more about the show at Oregon ArtsWatch.)

…or be dragged, Meshi Chavez: One way to get rigor is to fillet things back to the bone, which is what Chavez did in this dance. I hesitate to call it a dance, actually (and the same with Home Made, really), because it is an American manifestation of the Japanese form called butoh. (I wrote about a summer butoh festival last year, which may help explain it.)

Butoh often starts with a long, slow walk, and when I say slow, I mean glacial, during which the artist’s gait is deformed by the weight of the world. Chavez felt it in his neck and a couple of times it upended him completely, which meant a glacial rise to the standing position and a return to that painful walk.

Lisa DeGrace composed and performed a soundscape for his work, seated at a computer. The colors were dark and the music was electronic and thick, mostly, though the natural world occasionally crept in. Butoh can be a way of channeling pain, and Chavez was frequently writhing slowly on the ground, his mouth twisted, which required great physical effort. Think abdominal crunches and multiply by 10.

Powerful stuff, really, and from the program notes it sounded as though Chavez has been on this specific and difficult path a short time.


Courtesy of Portland Playhouse

Famished, Portland Playhouse: Unlike Make/Believe and …or be dragged, Famished, Eugenia Woods’ take on food and its discontents, continues through Feb. 5, so you can still see it, which you should think about doing.

Directed by Megan Kate Ward, Woods’ play focuses on one extended family and their eating issues. Now, since this is America in the recently and the here and now, eating issues are familiar to all of us. We eat too much. We eat the wrong thing. We eat too little. We try to satisfy crazy cravings and substitute Cheetos for more important things in life. We love it, we hate it, and when we’re in the middle about it, we’re sure we’re missing something more, something better. All of this is in Famished, but cleverly and with the clear sense that our own food torture affects those around us.

All of this is enacted around a huge dining room table in the middle of a stage with seats on two sides, this drama of food. (The kitchen at one end becomes a taco cart at one point, actually at a very lively point.) Richard (Damn Kupper) fell for his wife Lane (Sharonlee McLean) in part because she was so… tiny. He liked her fragility and concavities, though when we meet up with them, she’s taken to binging on snack food late at night. Her daughter Diane (Jill Westerby) has a touch of anorexia, it seems, though the big lug who falls in love with her, Jack (Isaac Lamb), seems fairly well adjusted, food-wise, though after they break up, he develops an unusual fondness for the Mexican food of Olata (Jessica Wallenfels), who reminds him that desire is a sign of life. The kids (Michael Cline, Roxanne Stathos) hate what their mother cooks — part of the family drama — but are really better balanced on the food score than anyone else. Hey, wait a few years!

The stories of our stage family are joined by the voices of real people telling their stories about food, stories Woods collected at various events during the past year or so. I wasn’t sure about this device at first, but pretty soon I appreciated those additional confessions, the way they deepened and broadened the stories on the stage. One more device: Wallenfels also plays a silent, mythic “sprite,” Our Lady of Insatiable Desire, dancing around the action, “commenting” silently. And again, the device convinced as the play ripened before us, maybe because Wallenfels inhabited her so completely and with such a great sense of wit and humor.

Oh, one more reason to see Famished? Free snacks!