at Edgewater Theatre Center

Life is more important than art, that’s what makes art so important. –James Baldwin

Address Unknown is performed by homeless people, who meet and rehearse under the auspices of the social-service agency Christopher House, and is based on their experience of being homeless. What these people are willing to share makes for moving and powerful theater.

The collection of pieces has a basic structure, but no script–each short section is improvised every night. The show begins with “Home,” in which each member of the ensemble sits in an isolated portion of the stage and free associates about the concept of home. Other titles include “Public Aid,” “The Bum,” and “I Got a Job.” These pieces have various formats. In some a situation is set up with various characters and the group improvises from there. Others, such as “Women,” are more focused, personal monologues about the members’ lives.

The program contains a disclaimer: certain pieces may be added or subtracted on any given evening due to the “nature of the ensemble and the material.” But the night I saw the show, things went according to the printed plan. Afterward, the ensemble engaged the audience in a free-form discussion.

In the pieces we learn about the ludicrousness of the public-aid system. We hear heartbreaking tales of men forced into prostitution and of children taken away by the state. We learn how difficult it is to find a job when you are homeless: the impossibility of giving potential employers a phone number, the time that must often be spent on long, exhausting walks across town to find shelters that serve food or have showers.

We are also shown the profound emotional battering the homeless take due to the social stigma attached to being homeless. In “Homeowner’s Meeting” the group portrays two homeless people who have been invited to a party. The reaction of the other guests is very amusing, but their behavior is terribly abusive–and none of it strays far from what we know to be true. “The Bum” is essentially an acting exercise. One member of the group sits in the middle of a circle of the others, and someone tells that person a phrase that is often used to describe the homeless. The phrase is then repeated by everyone in the outer circle. Each of them starts a phrase, while the mute person in the middle just sits and takes it. The capacity of these words to steal the center person’s humanity is devastating. This piece was even more chilling the night I saw it because the man in the middle, the oldest in the ensemble, said very little the entire evening.

Because the pieces come out of the performers’ lives, their harshness is underscored by their reality. But they are also touched with humor and hope. All of the performers seem to revel in the theatricality of what they’re doing, and they seem to particularly enjoy playing the people who make their lives difficult. In “Public Aid” two members of the ensemble play the clerk who takes care of paperwork and her supervisor as perfect satire; they push up to the edge of reality to make their points without slipping into absurdity. At one point a client offers to write down his passport number, and the clerk answers brightly, “Oh no, that’s all right. I’d rather you didn’t touch my pen.” The words are horrible, yet the way they were said was very funny. This humor lets us look at the truth of what is being said without being threatened. In “Homeowner’s Meeting” most of them play a group of home owners who are frightened and horrified when a friend brings two homeless people over. They shamelessly delight in their performances without ever resorting to caricature.

All of the performances share a gut knowledge of the people being portrayed that fills out the characters. The personal monologues are a little different of course, but because they still focus on a point, they become theatrical statements.

Director Laura Kohler has done an amazing job of imposing just enough structure to keep the evening cohesive, while allowing the performers to find their own words and establish a spontaneous and intimate rapport with the audience. The experiences of the performers are very theatrical; all they needed to create art was a framework in which to put them. It is the stuff playwrights only dream of capturing.