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Theatre in Review: Addressless (Rattlestick Theatre Company Online)

Lisa Ramirez, Shams DaBaron

What is the best of way of dramatically handling an intractable, long-term problem like homelessness? How about a game? Well, it wouldn't be my first choice, but the people behind Addressless have conceived an interactive online theatre piece in which members of the audience advise three fictional homeless people as they struggle through a hostile environment -- populated by ineffective social workers, manipulative bosses, and the sexually predatory -- in search of a down payment on an apartment. It's a bleak mirror image of Monopoly, an anti-capitalist exercise designed to educate and provoke empathy. That it achieves those goals is beyond question. And yet it left me feeling queasy in ways that, I suspect, were not intended.

Addressless has three protagonists, two played by professional actors. Joey Auzenne is Louis, a veteran whose many problems include a herniated disk that, if left untreated, could render him wheelchair-bound for life. Bianca Norwood is Josie, a nonbinary young person who, fleeing their abusive family in Buffalo, ends up in New York City with dreams of an art career but few prospects. The third character, Wallace, is played by Shams DaBaron, aka "Da Homeless Hero," an advocate for the homeless who was in the news last year when he organized homeless tenants of the luxurious Lucerne Hotel against former Mayor De Blasio's attempts to move them out. (They were housed there as part of the city's plan to control the spread of COVID-19.) The fourth principal, Hope Beaver, is a real-life social worker who narrates and serves as emcee.

Because of the interactive element, each performance will vary but, in general, Jonathan Payne's script tracks the characters over the course of three winter months. The first question: Where should each opt to sleep -- in a shelter (which is possibly dangerous and lacking in privacy), on the street (even more dangerous, and then there's the weather), or on a friend or relative's couch (dicey and more costly)? From there, at the performance I witnessed, the questions multiplied: Should Louis demand a hearing after being denied food stamps because of a bureaucratic error? When he hurts himself on the job at a Home Depot-type store, should he take time off (and risk being let go)? Or should he take a chance on opioids, which will cover his symptoms without resolving his underlying health problems? Should Josie agree to pose, for money, for a creepy photographer who chats her up in the park? Running into an acquaintance from home, should she be honest about living on the streets? And should Wallace blow $60 -- a big dent in his tiny nest egg -- on a night in a hostel with his newfound girlfriend (a nice turn by Lisa Ramirez)? Should he skip his AA meeting, where he is to celebrate ninety days of sobriety, to attend a party that might lead to a job offer? These and other choices, which get debated with the audience in breakout rooms, can cost them money and health credits, the loss of which can make that apartment impossible to get.

Of course, as in life, the game is rigged against them. The amount of money each earns is a matter of chance, chosen blindly by viewers. The presence of a social worker at Louis' food stamp hearing helps his cause not at all. When Josie wins a substantial cash prize at an "outsider art fair," a major chunk of it is claimed by the organizers. Wallace's gig as a home healthcare worker is cut short by accusations of spreading bedbugs; the episode ends in humiliation, with him receiving a fraction of the money owed to him.

As directed by Martin Boross, who is also credited as creator, Addressless goes about its business in a coolly efficient manner, with Beaver appearing between scenes to deliver appalling statistics about alcoholism, sexual abuse, and an uncaring system in a professionally sympathetic tone of voice. The cast is fine, with DaBaron fitting in seamlessly; it's also a pleasure to see familiar faces such as Mahira Kakkar, Michael Laurence, and Keith Randolph Smith in smaller roles. There is little doubt that some will find Addressless to be a valuable learning tool; a woman in my audience became audibly distressed at one of Wallace's dilemmas, exclaiming, "You're just screwed!" As indeed he is.

But rather than the legitimate discomfort provoked by coming face-to-face with real, preventable suffering, Addressless left me feeling uneasy at how it converts its characters' dilemmas into slick entertainment. There's something distasteful about relatively well-off viewers counseling homeless people, even fictional ones; it turns tragedy into a kind of sport. The use of whimsical video graphics seems especially inappropriate, as does the faintly patronizing, educational-film tone that prevails. The choose-your-own-adventure format only underlines the need for a play that addresses the root cause of homelessness, which include (but are not limited to) economic inequality, racism, homophobia, and governmental apathy and/or ineptitude.

I realize that the American equivalent of a David Hare is needed for that task, and it is not what Addressless sets out to do. Other factors may have influenced my response. In another life, I spent a fair amount of time around the homeless as a volunteer, and I saw close-up what they have to deal with. And possibly because I came of age in an era not shaped by digital media, I don't particularly care for interactive (or immersive experiences). To me, the act of being engaged with a book or a drama is interactive enough. And games are for fun, not sustained social analysis of other people's agonies.

All of which is my way of saying that Addressless, which is virtuous and accomplished, left me a little bit cold. A show like this should pierce one's conscience, scrape a little something off one's heart. All I could think was: But it's just a game, a theoretical exercise. You may feel differently. I hope you do. --David Barbour


(21 January 2022)

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