Saturday, June 15, 2013

Trash Cuisine: Assaulting the Audience

Belarus Free Theatre followed upon their powerful show Minsk, 2011 with a new work called Trash Cuisine which investigates capital punishment, torture, and government oppression and doing so using food as a metaphor and staging technique.

Smells of strawberries and cream as executioners compare techniques.  The sound of a bird being eaten bones and all.  The smell of soup cooking while political prisoners rot in prison.

About halfway through Trash Cuisine I started to wonder if the concept of food and torture was really working thematically, and then they began a segment on the Rwandan genocide, where they were cooking meat on stage in parallel with a horrific story of a Hutu who killed and cooked his children and tried to feed them to his bed-ridden Tutsi wife.  The performers were narrating and acting out the wife's horror, knowing what her husband was doing without being able to escape.  For the audience, not only did you have to endure this story, it was joined with the smell and sound of meat cooking.  This scene pushed the woman next to me to the brink.  She burst into tears, shielded her face, and desperately tried to escape the scene in her seat in the theater. But there was no where for her to go.

Suddenly it stopped being theater and started to become its own form of torture.  Trash Cuisine oscillates between promulgating powerful images through physical theater and aggressively underlining their political points with the use of sound and smells.  The opening scene is a carefully choreographed movement piece acting out various forms of capital punishment. It’s so beautiful and graceful and fluid; and then you realize they are killing people and this is violence.  Twisting violence into beauty or confusing beauty with violence--it is a subversive way to undermine your expectations.

I was reminded of a line from the television program Rectify, about a man who has spent most of life in prison and after his release is coping with the difficulty of being back in the world: "It is the beauty and not the ugly that hurts the most."  Belarus Free Theatre juxtaposes beauty with pain in such unexpected and heartbreaking ways. 

But this piece was not limited to expressing pain.  The intent in some scenes was to inflict pain. The use of sound and smell was actually an attempt to physically wreak violence upon you through theater.  In one instance, the aggressive pounding of a large ceremonial drum began to hurt my ears and I could feel the drumming throughout my body.  Then there was the high-pitched sound of screeching into a microphone to simulate the time of someone in the electric chair.  Endless.  Agonizing.   But then sweet relief at the sound ending meant someone (who was possibly wrongly accused) was dead.  Not much comfort in that.

Trash Cuisine would not be everyone's cup of tea. 

In the finale I was moved to tears by the images of young men whose lives were taken by their government--suspended bodies on a wall.  But the scene was not over.  The troupe pushed that finale to a whole new place when the entire cast began violently chopping onions.  As the onion fumes reached my eyes they began to burn. My real tears mixed with my onion tears.

This is theater that is actually reaches out from the stage to hit you in the face. Subtle it is not. But it is political theater that remains both elegant and evocative.  Not for the faint of heart but Trash Cuisine is powerful theater than cannot be unseen.

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