By A.L. ADAMS
Sourced from more than 600 interviews from Portland’s homeless population, Compassworks’ “Feral” could have been cloyingly sentimental or luridly sensationalist. It could have come off as exploitive, or it could have been stagnantly staged (a la “Vagina Monologues”) as a passé poetry slam.
Shrewdly, this play avoids all those traps. With a tight timeline, a clear trajectory, a suitable atmosphere and (mostly) credible characters, the words of our city’s homeless bear compelling witness to the complexity of their plight—but also to the durability of the human spirit.
Foster Road’s Bob White Theater is appropriately if not intentionally freezing cold, and the audience is surround-seated on the slab of concrete that mimics a homeless encampment. Characters pace the space and skirmish with one another, at turns reclining on tarps and makeshift bedding. Overhead, the sound of speeding cars and police sirens fill the air. The effect is so immersive and eerily realistic that you’ll yearn for a barrel fire, a nip of whiskey and some gloves.
The play’s central figure, Alan, is an impoverished father fresh out of options, setting out with a duffel bag for his first night on the streets. “People do this,” he mutters to himself—and soon enough, he attracts the attention of just such people—a hooker, an aging schizophrenic, a gutter-punk, a veteran, a rent boy/”booster,” a regular-joe stoner and his mousy pregnant girlfriend.
Initially, as the group descends on the terrified Alan like a circling wolf-pack, there are a few moments of tacky melodrama, most notably when group members announce their spirit animals and chant “Thieves, whores, losers and f-cks!” a la the Wizard of Oz “Lions and Tigers and Bears.” Because the homeless experience itself is rife with tiresome repetition, and where it intersects with mental illness there’s bound to be melodrama…these antics earn a reluctant pass.
As Alan bridges the rift between everyday life and street subsistence (he still has some battery life left in his cell phone, he’s working his way through his last store-bought pack of cigarettes) we’re vicariously ushered to the other side by his new companions. In addition to hearing several real-life sob stories, we learn the ropes of living rough, including how many clothes to wear at once, how to store your stuff at the bowling alley, and what slogans draw the most cash when you “fly a sign” while panhandling. At the same time, we watch characters struggle to get along despite their daunting emotional baggage and crippling mistrust of the world and each other.
Rather than languishing in tragedy or bouncing wildly between moods, the play mercifully aligns its narrative themes with its evening-to-morning timeline: At dusk it’s confusing and foreboding, as the night wears on it becomes increasingly dark, and by sunrise the dialogue softens and brightens, offering a redemptive hint of hope.
Fertile Ground passholders, add Feral to your itinerary; and educators and social servants, put it on your radar as a worthwhile facilitator of tough discussions.
“RIBBONS OF WAR”
A lesbian love affair between a pirate and an aviatrix. Seafaring ballads. A turtledove puppet. Zombies. Animation. A mandolin, a uke, and a Kraken. Bursting with neo-romantic motifs, it’s no wonder this musical sprang from a 2007 indie album of the same name by Philadelphia’s The Extraordinaires. Talk about a at hipster’s wet dream! Not content to rack up subcultural brownie points, writer Andrew Fridae takes his seaworthy story the extra mile with a well-defined and engaging plot to contextualize the pleasing tunes.
The only clue that young director Josh Gulotta’s fully staged and costumed version of “Ribbons of War” is currently at “workshop” status is—sadly—the singing performances. The most notable exception is aviatrix Annalies (Bahar Baharloo), whose crystalline, intimate voice recalls tones of rock-opera songwriter Anais Mitchell and undeniably carries the show. (Shockingly, Gulotta revealed during opening announcements that this romantic lead only clamored aboard three days before. What a life-saver!) Other standouts are tenor Darling (Leland Radburn), who sounds classically trained, and the shipmates, whose throats are salty-but-serviceable.
Otherwise, the tone of the singing is nasal, breath control falters, and notes frequently fall flat. These technical shortcomings are tough ones to “workshop” away, and it’s a shame considering that all cast members deliver well as actors, aptly riding the whirlwind of high-energy blocking and burning bright with the spirit of the show.
But in a town where even our karaoke scene is so well-peopled with vocal pros that it earns a nod from the New York Times, there’s no great excuse to cast fair-weather singers in a musical. Go to a karaoke bar on a Tuesday, fling a fork and you’ll hit a singing superstar. As Portland screenwriter Chuck Palahniuk famously observed, “We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world!” Too true, and we should have seen more of that crap on this poop deck.
Though you don’t have to be a steam-punk renn-faire role-player to enjoy “Ribbons of War” in its current manifestation, you do have to be able to suck up some so-so vocals. For the many indie-pop fans who are fine with that, this show’s starry-eyed romance, playful ennui and surprising twists will bring pure delight.
“Ribbons of War” continues at Shaking the Tree through February 3.