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Theatre in Review: Feral (Tortoise in a Nutshell/59E59)

Photo: Amy Downes.

Frequent readers of this column may be familiar with the work of Manual Cinema, the Chicago-based troupe that uses old-fashioned overhead projectors, combined with silhouettes, paper puppets, and shadow effects, to tell stories. Now comes Tortoise in a Nutshell, from Edinburgh, a company that practices a similar aesthetic but takes it to the next level. The layout for Feral features a table, its surface sloped downward, with several extension lamps poised above it and, farther up, a projection screen.

As the show begins, members of the company erect Amelia Bird's scenic design on the table; it's a series of three-dimensional cut-outs of buildings depicting the streets of a seaside town. The performers are equipped with tiny video cameras, which they use with enormous skill and invention to create a cinematographic collage of the village's daily comings and goings -- a lively squirrel bothering an Anglican priest, a beauty shop in which the hair dryers move up and down on the heads of the patrons, and such bits of whimsy as a "pre-Victorian lighting emporium." Although the set pieces are deliberately rough and most of the accompanying drawings have a naïve, childlike quality, the capture of them on screen is highly sophisticated. One shot will feature an over-the-shoulder view of a boy looking out his apartment window at the street below. The next shot may be a straight-on view of passing pedestrians, or a long pan covering three floors of an apartment house. The action unfolds through overhead views, unusual angles, and tracking shots. It is live theatre, recorded and presented as film. Downstage left is a video editor, who switches between cameras and delivers images to the screen. Downstage right is the composer and sound designer Jim Harbourne, who, in addition to his score, adds immeasurably to the atmosphere with such effects as feline meows, seagulls, surf, a ship's horn, radio broadcasts, and occasional overheard voices. Given the accumulation of quaint and amusing details, Feral might strike you at first as a charming, if slightly twee, exercise. But the narrative, which is credited to the entire company, is one of dissolution and decay. At the beginning of the piece, the town is a going concern, filled with bustling stores, friendly folk, and a general air of bonhomie. Things go downhill swiftly, however, following the introduction of a video gaming palace known as the Supercade. Touted as a boon to the local economy, it trails hints of municipal corruption and seems to trigger a wave of crime, police brutality, and bankruptcy. What is especially impressive about Feral is how the original images, filled with optimism, are so quickly replaced by those of ruin; when the camera finally tracks inside the Supercade, we see a depressing interior landscape of graffiti and overturned machines. The monkey that is the venue's logo is seen hanging from a noose.

Exactly why all this happens isn't explained; the methodology practiced at Tortoise in a Nutshell doesn't allow for nuance or even much drama. I suspect that Feral may play well to knowing audiences in the northern half of the British Isles, where many small towns and formerly industrial cities, starved of resources, struggle for survival in the wake of governmental neglect. It may not even be too much to see Feral as a parable of the false promises of Brexit, in which a touted miracle solution to social problems instead brings everything to a halt.

In any case, the sheer creativity of the troupe is sufficient to hold one's attention for the brief, fifty-minute running time. Under the direction of Ross MacKay, who guided this nimble company and aided by Simon Wilkinson's spot-on lighting design, Feral is a visually gripping achievement, conjuring up a series of images that are surprisingly hard to shake off. (For anyone interested in video design for the theatre, it is a must-see.) The message it bears, that even the most charming and civilized social grouping can fall apart all too quickly, is capable of sending shivers up the most hardened spines. Feral's sobering point of view is presented with admirable skill and transparency; you may find yourself glancing alternately at the screen and the activity below as the performers go about their tasks with such efficiency. You are also invited onstage after the piece concludes to examine how they do what they do. It's a case of magic executed in plain sight. --David Barbour

(22 May 2019)

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