Most of the UTR brochures I see prominently feature a photo of Andrew Ondrejcak’s Feast. It’s the one with the gold-gilded people sitting at a stark table looking ready to devour someone.
The photo is adequate in conveying the tone of the show. It’s frivolous, it’s decadent, it’s even malicious at times. It’s also ostensibly about food. Lots and lots of food. Every character groans and aches for food. One character even thanks a long list of her favorite foods in her suicide speech. And yet none ever appears on their table. They slurp, they smack, they chew at the air.
What the photo doesn’t show is the only actual food in the show. A fish-monger (Peter Cullen) stands at the side of the stage, a faint spotlight revealing how he prepares the fish. Slowly slicing, shaving off the scales, de-boning, and cleaning the edible meat, his process is silent and takes up the majority of the 75-minute play. He speaks only once, singing a verse about his work. Then, a stagehand (actually, it’s Ondrejcak) clears the fish-monger’s table, dumps the entire fish, good parts and bad, into a bucket, and sets a new fish on the table. The one person actually doing anything in the play (is it the proletariat? the working man?) is decidedly working in futility.
Meanwhile, the four gilded people sit at their table, which stands about fifteen feet in the air, with their king (Reg E Cathy), a diseased man in a t-shirt and jeans with dried blood stains on his collar from coughing into it. Feast is inspired by the biblical story of King Belshazzar of Babylon, who held one last indulgent feast with his concubines while God enables the collapse of his empire. Ondrejcak intersperses his original dialogue with short verses from Handel’s 1744 Belshazzar opera, which are humorously lip-synched by the cast.
Feast is an interesting exploration of man’s tendency towards excess. The concubines’ bodies work against themselves. They find both pleasure and suffering in their indulgences, and can never satisfy their feelings of emptiness. As one concubine repeatedly states, “the world is just too much, yet not enough.” It’s an inherent contradiction that many of us often feel under different circumstances (I certainly do) and this feast is just one embodiment of the world’s towering anxieties. The play is also a treasure trove of humorous anecdotes about food, sex, and bodily functions, and there are great one-liners distributed throughout, such as “It’s all I can think about when I’m thinking about thinking about things.” I think that one is about food…it’s a safe enough bet.
By the end, I didn’t feel like all these great elements came together for a united reflection on play’s message. What Ondrejcak is criticizing and what he’s proposing as a solution are evasive, and he saves himself from politicizing its meaning. The play closes with the king speaking, his last line (is it the last of his life?) states that we must change the way we think about what is beautiful. Perhaps, if we say kindness, compassion, and humility as things of beauty instead of professionally plated food, jewel-encrusted cups, and flattering dresses, perhaps we wouldn’t have to strive for so much and achieve so little.