Review: In ‘Feral,’ Gentrification Spoils a Seaside Idyll

The seaside town of “Feral,” a production by Tortoise in a Nutshell that opened at 59E59 Theaters on Wednesday, is easily recognizable. With its quaint streets, attractive shops and effortless charm, it might as well be called Idyllville. It’s the place most of us wish we remembered from childhood.

You get to see this town being erected in front of you, sprung from childlike wonder through puppetry and live video projection — Tortoise in a Nutshell’s specialty since its founding in 2010. With “Feral,” expertly directed by Ross MacKay, the troupe chronicles the decline of Scottish seaside towns while capturing the feeling of growing old and realizing that we can’t always recognize ourselves in the memories we hold dearest.

As the lights go on, they reveal an elaborate drawing desk crowned by seven work lamps. One of the performers, Matthew Leonard, sits with his back to the audience and begins to draw on a blank sheet of paper; the images are projected onto a screen. He draws four stick figures that he then names. There’s Joe, our protagonist, and his family: Mum, his sister, Dawn, and their cat.

He draws square buildings with square windows, and as he finishes, more cast members, Alex Bird and Arran Howie, begin turning the two-dimensional world into a tangible reality. They attach miniature cardboard structures to the drawing desk. What just seconds before was a metallic slope suddenly becomes a hill with ocean views.

The stick figures also take on a third dimension as little puppets with cardboard bodies and heads made of clay. They have big black eyes but no mouths.

Using hand-held cameras, the performers give a tour of the town. Wonders in miniature abound: a tiny squirrel pestering a priest; women in the beauty shop oohing and ahhing at their stylish hairdos; and the newly arrived Supercade, a megastore that promises to turn the town on its head.

It’s the Supercade that makes the town go feral, as gentrification leads to chaos. The lighting, by Simon Wilkinson, changes from yellow and blue to a strident red. Joe’s apartment loses its views, blocked by the monstrous new building. Rabid dogs roam the streets, garbage begins to pile up, and that friendly priest now carries a sign that says the end is nigh.

“Feral” is at its best when it answers the question of why live cinema is necessary for this story, as opposed to a more traditional film. Watching the performers — as they go under tables, scramble to position the puppets and improvise when technical difficulties arise — is a reminder of why we cling to beauty as the world around us falls apart.


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