Entering the Bob White Theatre Warehouse—just a concrete floor with in-the-round seating and a chandelier hanging from the soaring ceiling—ushers informed audience members that the heat will shut off when the performance begins. “It’ll get progressively colder,” one says. “Hang onto your coats.”
This was, oddly, not an intentional metacommentary about life on the streets in this world-premiere Fertile Ground
production of Bruce Hostetler's Feral
, an exploration of homelessness in Portland that draws from more than 500 interviews with homeless individuals. (Read my preview here
.) But it’s guidance that becomes achingly resonant as Feral
runs its course, following the newly homeless Alan (a sympathetically skittish Tommy Harrington) over the course of a single January night. Audience members might endure 100 minutes of shivery temperatures, but that’s put in perspective as the play’s seven homeless characters discuss the discomfort and fear of sleeping outside, gush about the small luxury of sitting on a couch and advise Alan on how to stay warm and dry—and that’s all before they dig into their darker personal stories.
If the chilly temperature is intentional, it’s a bit heavy-handed. That aside, Feral, directed by Asae Dean, steers largely clear of ham-fisted didacticism or maudlin speechifying. As the performance begins, before the mercury plummets and the actors’ breaths become visible, Alan finds himself clutching his duffel in the center of the stage. The group paces in a circle, heckling Alan like a perverse Greek chorus. Once this stagy bit of circus is complete, though, dramatic tension is allowed to emerge more organically through rapid-fire exchange and fragmented monologue. Then, too, can characters’ identities begin to emerge: There’s Grizzly (David Poland), an aging ‘Nam vet-turned-alcoholic; Wildcat (Jennifer Zubernick, a little shouty), a reluctant prostitute; and Wolf (Sam Burns, surprisingly sympathetic in an unlikable role), a young drug cooker. Bear (Jeremy Garfinkel) and Doe (Elizabeth Garrett) are expecting a child. Olddog (Mikki Lipsey), silver hair matted and boots held together with tape, battles schizophrenia as Jackal (Brian Demar Jones, characteristically compelling) assists and comforts her.
As the night progresses, stories turn from darkly humorous—the group discusses how to write a sign that will generate the most coin, for example, and they role-play cops both kind and cruel—to harrowing. The script is still working out its kinks, and pacing can lag. In aiming for comprehensive character development, Hostetler seems to feel an obligation to have all characters chime in about each theme, which can grow a bit plodding. But better than the semi-philosophical musings on homelessness and injustice are the direct interactions between characters, some of which carry serious heat (Burns, tightly wound and ready to snap, conveys particular immediacy). It’s an old rule to show rather than tell, but that’s clearly demonstrated in these moments, which reveal as much (and sometimes more) than the characters’ autobiographical monologues.
“It’s gonna be a long cold night,” says Bear at one point. Though the long cold night dramatized here ends on a strangely bright note, which rings false, in its best moments Feral is an impassioned piece of theater that serves as a humane, sobering and occasionally wry reminder of the scope of human experience.
The Bob White Theatre Warehouse, 6423 SE Foster Rd., 800-494-8497. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 3 pm Sunday, Jan. 31-Feb. 3. $12-$15. Tickets here