The trees have leafed out, people have started jumping in the ocean, and PortFringe, Portland’s irrepressible and joyous summer performing arts festival, is about to launch.
That means opportunities to see (for example) a drag-cabaret-cum-puppet show about a duchess’s failed love affairs; participatory rituals about, respectively, water, bread, and bedtime whispers; an “existential banana burlesque,” and much more.
Now in its eleventh year, the city’s genre-defying, inclusive, and dreamily DIY fest will be popping up in a variety of venues throughout East Bayside from June 1st through 9th, in the city’s annual celebration of experimentation, self-expression, hybridity and community.
Like most festivals in the international community of fringe fests, PortFringe isn’t a traditional “theater” festival, so don’t expect straight-ahead performances from the canon. Instead, PortFringe offers artists a space for risk-taking, cross-discipline collaborations, interactive works, and consciousness-raising by local, national and international artists (this year’s fest marks the happy return of beyond-Maine acts after COVID-19 disruptions).
As a non-juried fest (slots are awarded by lottery drawn from an open call for work), PortFringe prioritizes accessibility, inclusion and equity, with 100 percent of proceeds from ticket sales going back to artists. In an entrenched capitalist society and a gentrifying city, PortFringe is a week of artist heaven.
This year’s shows engage myriad interconnections of music, puppets, comedy, and movement, with themes spanning ritual, healing, disability and corporate banality (see the sidebar for a breakdown). Most shows are grouped into pairs, with each pair running several times and at several venues over the course of the week. PortFringe also continues its “Late Night” series of four longer acts (60 to 75-minute) that run one night only at 9:30, to bring Fringe-goers together at the end of their evening’s performance-grazing. Shows are $15 a pop, with multi-show passes available as well.
In light of the continued assaults against the lives of trans and queer people, and the ongoing economic changes in Portland, here are a few special highlights of this year’s PortFringe lineup.
Celebrating Trans Lives
Given bans or limitations on care for trans folks in Florida and at least 17 other states, PortFringe’s several shows about trans experiences are especially vital.
New York-based Lou Sydel developed his solo movement-theater piece “On the Other Hand” as a theater and dance major at Bowdoin, at a time when he was exploring his trans identity and doing research in the field of gesture studies.
“Gesture is all around us: how we acknowledge someone, how we emphasize an idea, how we pray,” he explains. “My piece is a collage of musings about how gender is embodied and the ways that nonverbal communication can highlight identity.”
Sydel hopes Fringe-goers will leave his show “with a sense of curiosity about their own daily gestures” and “that they will continue to celebrate the trans people in their lives.”
Vin Grant began writing “Life Goes On” when they were in high school, before workshopping it at the Maine Young Playwrights Festival at Portland Stage. Based on their own life experiences as a trans person in Portland, they say, the show involves themes of “homelessness, mental health and belonging, a story that truly feels pertinent for the Portland we are living in.”
Grant calls “Life Goes On” “an unapologetically queer work during a time where LGBTQ+ folks are being threatened every day.”
“My sincerest hope is that ‘Life Goes On’ will make people think differently about the people around them, and inspire them to make changes that allow everyone to belong,” says Grant. “I also hope that those who are disabled, those who are queer, those who are struggling with their mental health will see themselves in the show and know that their stories are worth telling and their lives are worth living.”
Finally, through poetry, song and movement, Sampson Spadafore’s “Theatre 4 Trans” investigates the relationship between trans identities and theatre itself, and “the ways trans bodies and narratives could exist in theatre.”
“As a trans performer, I’ve found making my way through theatrical spaces tricky, especially amidst my medical transition,” says Spadafore. “You’ll hear it in my piece, but I often feel that my body is in a liminal space, especially as legislators across the country rage on trans bodies.”
Spadafore’s work aims to envision and propose. “Performance art and theatre has a way of showing people what they couldn’t imagine themselves, and inspire them to seek out new possibilities in their lives,” they say. “I hope my short piece does just that.”
Reviving Portland’s Scrappy, Inclusive Magic
Finally, in light of the many changes happening to Portland and Portlanders, including its arts community, let’s welcome Orthogonal Arts’ “This is a Song to the City,” which author John Bowker describes as “most definitely and specifically a love letter to Portland, warts and all”.
Bowker describes falling in love with Portland for the magic of its “small, offbeat experiences” and “weird little reminders that the world is vastly more interesting than the daily grind.” Now that the world knows about Portland, “the mood has tarnished a bit,” he says. “Money is everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to be making things better for the people who live here, and the magic feels diminished as a result.”
Their show aims to revive it, by imagining a yearly ritual that local weirdos perform on top of the Time and Temperature Building to “celebrate and raise the magic of the city.”
“PortFringe is such a great festival for this kind of play,” says Bowker. “There’s a wonderful benign chaos in the moments before the lights come up every night, and that’s exactly the kind of energy we’re celebrating.”
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Musically fueled or inflected
- In Nova Scotian Jesse Ward’s “The Fantastic One,” an electric banjo player tries to love a Marvel creature in order to find himself (also a late night show)
- Queer Boston comedian and musician Gwen Coburn mingles stand-up and musical numbers in “Sad Girl Song Comedy: Oops! All Songs”
- and through songs, sound effects, and storytelling, Russell Kaback performs the story of his grandfather, a Polish Jewish teenager who spent four years in Nazi camps.
Healing and well-being
- New Gloucester’s Adelyn Bell uses music and poetry to explore the “protector parts” of a self through experiences of motherhood, addiction, and trauma in “Part Self”
- Nora Daly’s “Do They Take Song Requests in the Void” takes on “coping”
- and Polyphonic Theatre Ensemble’s “Shells, Rocks, Sea Glass,” is a play and ritual by Megan E. Tripaldi involving healing and water.
- Elizabeth Lardie’s “Pursued by a Bear” bring both puppets and poetry to bear in a “flippant” reflection on living with PTSD
- Elliot Nye’s “Real World Puppet” show is billed as featuring “real puppets, real people, and real hearts on the line”
- The Duchess Carpathia Bouffray torch-sings her way through her romantic history with puppets in “The Used Chanteuse” (a late-night show).
- Tandem Theatre Collective’s “Invitation to a Bonfire” raises the alchemy of post-bedtime secrets (a Late-Night show)
- while Crusty Old Broads present an interactive show about ritual, bread and “the worry that feeds us.”
- Portland’s Hey Party People do sketch comedy
- Portland’s Business Pants Corporate Theater sends up the corporate world in “The Boring Boring Company”
- and the distractible Chimera Theatre Collective will try to perform 30 new plays in 60 minutes in “Distracted by Penguins” (a late night show).
Disability, teen hierarchies, Poe, and banana angst
- Sam Atwood and Kings Floyd explore disability and “the exotic and mysterious lives of the North American Cripple” in “CripTonight.”
- GenZ’s “Babies in the River” explores “a cutthroat oligarchy of popularity” within the now-routine horror of the school lockdown.
- Joe Quinn adapts and performs Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse”
- and Brooklyn’s Michael Galligan offers “existential banana burlesque” in “Banana.”