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Theatre in Review: Trash Cuisine (Belarus Free Theatre/La MaMa)

Photo: Belarus Free Theatre

The human impulse to treat other living things as objects to be destroyed is explored with blazing clarity in Trash Cuisine Using a combination of movement, personal testimony, and pitch black comedy employing food as a metaphor for other, crueler kinds of consumption, the gifted members of this troupe offer up a catalogue of horrors, bringing us face to face with the fact that casual killing is enshrined, in one way or another, in virtually every culture on the planet. It's a multicourse banquet of brutality that is calculated to make you wonder if humanity is really worth the name. Prepare to leave the theatre thoroughly shaken.

What follows may seem assaultive, even alienating, but that's not how it plays out in the theatre. Instead, the members of the company, under the direction of Nicolai Khalezin, present a brilliantly stylized meditation on the killing impulse that provokes and disturbs in equal measures. For those who are used to skipping past stories of atrocities in the newspaper or looking on in detached pity on CNN, the Belarus Free Theatre has a profoundly unsettling message: The people who commit such crimes are in the end no different from you or me.

After an initial movement sequence in which performers are manhandled, put into stress positions, or caged, Philippe Spall, our emcee of sorts, enters and performs an acridly comic monologue, offering appalling descriptions of various European delicacies, such as Limburger cheese. (The only cheese in the world that is as attractive, to a mosquito, as a pair of sweaty feet!") Next up is a sequence in which two women nosh on strawberries and cream, sipping champagne while discussing the finer points of executing prisoners. Their tone is so casual, so girlfriends-having-lunch, that it takes a minute before you take in that they are discussing the fine points of death by firing squad. ("In Belarus, we don't execute women," one of them says thoughtfully. "Maybe we should.") Around them, another movement sequence unfolds, in which a man and a woman are forced to the floor and larded with apples and pineapples, forming a strangely powerful image of subjugation; later, they are rolled up in plastic bags, to be taken out with the trash.

Spall returns with a monologue about the eating of the French delicacy ortolan. The recipe involves trapping a bird in a 30-centimeter-square box and grotesquely overfeeding it. "After 28 days, the bird will weigh four times its normal body weight. Carefully take it out of the box and drown it in a snifter of Brandy, preferably Armagnac." Later, he advises, "Place a large napkin over your head, to hide from the sight of your God," adding, "Chew the whole bird, working your way through the breast and wings, the tiny lungs and heart saturated in Armagnac, the intestines and delicate bones. You may find that the bones are sharp and cut your gums -- do not be alarmed. The salt in your blood will only add to the palette of flavors, enhancing the pleasure of the experience." Thanks to the actor's insinuating rumble of voice and the icy precision of the words, this account of over-refined gustatory cruelty is easily the most macabre experience I've had in the theatre in some time. (He later turns up to deliver a most lucid account of Claudius' third-act speech from Hamlet - "O my offense is rank. It smells to heaven.")

What follows is a series of personal accounts that, using a combination of projections, video, audio, and movement, offer irrefutable evidence that, when it comes to torture and execution, we have no place to hide. They include Liam Holden, of Northern Ireland, who, in 1971, was arrested for the killing of a British soldier and was forced to confess after a bout of waterboarding. His sentence was ultimately commuted - 40 years later. Jorge Julio Lopez was kidnapped by an Argentine military squad and tortured for three years. I can't bring myself to relate the details of a Tutsi woman whose Hutu husband turned on her, doling out a fate that would make Sweeney Todd blanch in horror. Lest we feel too smug about ourselves in these United States, Clive Stafford-Smith, a British human rights lawyer who tried to save Nicky Ingram, an American convict, from the electric chair, presents a minute-by-minute account of his client's last day, from the offering of a menu for the final meal through the governor's rejection of a stay of execution to the grisly moment when electricity invades Ingram's body. A little later, we are given a demonstration of what it is like during the 60 seconds it takes to electrocute a prisoner. A video image counts the minute down while we endure a terrifying, high-pitched scream; after a ten-second respite, it is repeated.

Clearly, the Belarus Free Theatre means business, as well it should, having been investigated and brutalized in its home country before being banned from it altogether. The company, which appears to be based here, now includes Americans, Asians, and Europeans, but they honestly come by their firsthand knowledge of organized oppression. As I wrote this review, I tried to access the Belarus Free Theatre website, only to find that it had been hacked -- I can only wonder by whom. (For the record, the script is by Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, with additional contributions by Nastassia Shcherbak, Aleh Sidorchyk, Stafford Smith, and Spall.)

It is a tribute to this troupe's total commitment and almost neoclassical discipline that Trash Cuisine exerts it viselike grip for the vast majority of its running time. In a way, it's a profoundly clarifying experience, cutting through the hysteria that so often infects our national conversation -- the manufactured fears of lost religious freedom, Third World viruses, and the booga-booga threat of Sharia law in the heartland -- we are made to stare into the face of authentic evil, occupying a space only a few feet away.

The production features a very basic set -- a white floor and upstage wall -- by Yuri Kaliada, and relatively simple lighting by Andrew Crofts, which nevertheless creates some striking images with sidelight. The basic-black costumes are by Khalezin and Kaliada. The haunting score, written and played by Arkadiy Yushin, casts a spell of its own, allowing us to accept the uglier details of the text without recoiling. The choreography, by Bridget Fiske, is always effective in its sleek evocation of violent acts.

Possibly because Trash Cuisine doesn't have a very sophisticated structure -- it basically consists of a string of episodes that don't really build or become more complex -- it finally begins to drag in the last ten minutes; the company seems a bit unsure how to bring the piece to a conclusion. But this is a relatively small complaint given what has been achieved here. It is a pity that the members of Belarus Free Theatre cannot go home, but at least we have the benefit of their terrible honesty. -- David Barbour


(30 April 2015)

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