Two street signs onstage read “Preble” and “Marginal.” A triptych of back panels presentsimages of the city intersection, and on the stage floor are the sort of concrete medians that became, not long ago, contentious territory in Portland. The stage is set to explore what Snowlion Repertory Company calls the “median strip controversy” of 2012-15, when the city attempted to ban activity — namely, panhandling, or “signing” — in the medians. After a workshop production last December, the full production of Anything Helps God Bless is onstage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, directed by Al D’Andrea, and performed by an adept ensemble of eleven. Written by D’Andrea, MK Wolfe, and the show’s ensemble, Anything Helps tackles the median conflict through a meticulous and dramatically satisfying synthesis of documentary materials, original interviews with actual signers, and the ensemble members’ own self-reflection about signing and the project itself.
Onstage, these ensemble members slip nimbly between versions of themselves and portrayals of nearly 50 city officials, advocates, citizens, and signers. We hear motorists calling dispatch about drunk or intimidating panhandlers. We watch Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister (RenéGoddess Johnson) have a late-night chat with a cop and set the ordinance in motion. We’re treated to reenactments of city council sessions, presided over by Mayor Michael Brennan (Nick P. Solloway); commentary by journalists Randy Billings (Eric Darrow Worthley) and Chris Shorr (Eric Norgaard); and activists and citizens discussing the larger systemic issue of poverty. We watch the extended legal battle between the city and the ACLU of Maine, a contest that winds up in a U.S. Court of Appeals.
Since many of us followed this issue as it unfolded, we’re watching Anything Helps less for What Happened than for the How and Why of it. And Snowlion’s collected voices provide context for a surprisingly gripping courtroom drama, with some striking emotional moments — as when Allison Prior (Mary Randall), a plaintiff in the ACLU case and a signer, takes the stand. And several portrayals of public officials are zingers: Harlan Baker, for example, gets a rise from the audience each time his unctuous Ed Suslovic prefaces remarks with a drawn-out “Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” The facial and vocal mannerisms of Tom Handel’s Police Chief Michael Sauschuck are uncannily on-the-money, Pat Scully does Ethan Strimling with a wide, lupine smile as he explains his personal fundraising m.o.: “I want you to give until it feels great.”
The ensemble’s original research with signers yields some affecting perspectives; Bob Pettee’s thoughtful portrayal of Michael, a sensitive and halting man who tells him, “I never met a stupid homeless person,” is beautifully drawn. The ensemble’s own reflections are also compelling, as when Cathy Counts recalls how her postal carrier father was friendly with everybody, panhandlers included, on his downtown Congress Street beat. And actor Patricia Mew relates trying panhandling, herself, then contends with her ambivalence.
Given its abundant source material, perhaps it’s inevitable that Anything Helps is overwhelmingly verbal, and often dense with wonky legal technicalities. Snowlion wisely breaks up the language-heavy segments with the signers’ slower-paced, colloquial monologues. A few sharp moments of physical staging also help the show’s theatricality — as when, after a vocal montage of incident reports, all of the performers flip their notebooks shut on the same snappy beat. But there could be more of such moments, and some interludes of wordless movement would be welcome, too — perhaps a lone signer “flying a sign” at different times of day, in headlights, in rain.
Ultimately, in synthesizing, contextualizing, and dramatizing Portland’s complex median-strip imbroglio, Snowlion succeeds in what’s often so difficult and so crucial: humanizing the issue. Anything Helps is a valuable, thoughtful, and even entertaining example of the civic work that documentary theater can perform. We could use more of it.
Anything Helps God Bless | By Al D’Andrea and MK Wolfe, and the AHGB ensemble; directed by Al D’Andrea; produced by Snowlion Repertory Company | Through October 8 | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20 | .
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