“All At Sea” on a rising tide of friend-families.

Paul Susi's ensemble "earthquake baroque" explores the shared housing phenomenon.

Photo by James Mapes (cropped for layout)

Photo by James Mapes (cropped for layout)

How’s this for a post-millennial premise: Six unmarried adults in their mid-30’s decide to buy a house together.

Paul Susi’s “All At Sea” explores an emerging movement in modern life where American non-blood-relatives opt to share housing, forming post-nuclear, friend-families that are not only socially, but also financially interdependent. For most members of the (call it what it is) commune, the arrangement seems to work fine, but breakups and conflicting life plans threaten to tear others loose from their makeshift support system. A sea voyage in a rickety ship is the central metaphor for a group that’s constantly adjusting its tack.

Over the course of the story, each of the six central characters in turn makes a phone call to his/her mom—but many of these exchanges show more distance than connection. The phone call that closes the show breaks the pattern: Rather than calling “Mom,” a character calls another character from the group’s friend circle, sealing the transition from natal to chosen family.

As the group goes through the practical motions of its real-life quest (contacting a realtor, checking out strange houses that “smell like noodles”), their individual and shared dreams loom large in the background, taking various symbolic forms: the Queen of Spain, a volcano, the aforementioned ship, an African-American spiritual about safe passage…. A range of devices—song, shadow-play, mime, absurd historical re-enactment—interchangeably depict the characters’ deepest beliefs in a seeming dreamscape.

Susi’s vision for his script is as risky as his characters’ shared-housing proposition: Taking an all-hands-on-deck approach, he’s asked all of his actors (Lily Burnett, Rollin Carlson, Matt Deegan, Sarah Scott Dyrhaug, Zero Feeney, Gilberto Martin del Campo, and Cassie Skauge) to contribute autobiographical details to what he calls an “earthquake baroque” story. This may be why the actors’ characters bear their own names—and also why the story sails such choppy waves of overlapping myth.

For example: in the Queen of Spain scenes, the lights suddenly dim and fairly-normal character Cassie pulls on a cartoonish collar and hoop skirt and her friends pop on ruffly collars. She begins a formal oration weighing the relative merits of explorer-hood from its most thrilling possibilities to its most destructive results. This is later understood to be Cassie’s dream, where the Queen gives voice to the real-life character’s dilemma: She’s reluctant to cohabitate with her group because she wants the option of moving to another country. While her personal progress hardly threatens a whole civilization, it does shake the foundation of her ad-hoc friend-family.

The journey gets confusing when mimed gestures (particularly unmooring and sailing a ship) become hard to decipher, or when lines of one-sided phone calls prove a tad too cryptic to determine what’s being said on the other side. Nevertheless, the characters’ mutually flawed, intimate visions combine to strike a unique and surprisingly resonant chord.


“All at Sea” continues 8 pm July 18-20 at BodyVox, 1201 NW 17th Ave.; $6-$12.

A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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