Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Well, not exactly. Feast, by Megan Gogerty, is presented as a dinner-theater event at Black Forest Inn, the long-standing German restaurant in the heart of Minneapolis' "Eat Street" district. Not a typical theater venue, it lacks stage lighting or even a stage, but so what? Dinner is served first, with a choice of entrees ordered in advance, and live music performed by either Scott Keever or the trio Sycamore Gap, alternating dates. Both are in the vein of Celtic/Nordic/Gaelic folk music.
Then the play begins. Feast is a one-woman affair performed by Isabel Nelson, known to me primarily from her extensive work with Transatlantic Love Affair, creating exquisitely conceived physical theater pieces. Lights dim, Nelson enters, or more accurately crawls, barely a human being at first, more a lump of sludge that manages to reach a long table set in the middle of the open playing area. There she squirms, grunts, pulls limbs, twists appendages, cranks, and manages to transform herself into a person–actually a charming, lovely to look at person in a breezy black dress. Holding her arms out, curling her lipsticked mouth into a smile, she gushes "I've arrived!"
Only then do we realize that she is the host of the meal we are just finishing up. Her invitation was to dine, yes, but also to serve as a "truth and reconciliation" council, listening to her outrageous account of how she, the mother of Grendel, murdered the legendary hero Beowulf. It is a confessional that transitions into a call to arms. And it is decidedly not ordinary theater.
The Beowulf of legend slayed the monster Grendel, depicted variously as a sub-human creature, a descendent of Caine, the first murder according to the Bible. Beowulf pulled one of Grendel's arms off of his body and hung it on the wall, like a hunter's trophy. Grendel's mother rises up from her mud-cave home at the bottom of a lake to avenge her son's death and rebuke the arrogance with which the killer displayed his prize. She intends to have vengeance and justifies everything she does to achieve it. She tells us, never doubting herself, "sometimes it's okay to desecrate a body."
Grendel's mother relates her perspective on the struggle between Beowulf and her son, and then her own battle against Beowulf. Along the way, we somehow veer into the question of when is it right to rage against power. Our host cites statistics about the relatively small number of billionaires on Earth (about 2,700), whose combined wealth enables them to control the other nine billion human beings on the planet. Her case for their overthrow is cogent, and her lack of a deeply imbedded moral code (she is, after all, a sea hag) makes her suggestions seem, within that context, utterly reasonable. As she earlier stated, describing the futility of Grendel's efforts to argue his case against Beowulf using logic, "you can't negotiate with a mosquito." And yet, how do we come to classify other human beings as mosquitoes?
Feast runs about 75 minutes–that includes a brief pause while a modest dessert is passed out to the audience–and for its entirety, Nelson holds our focus. Gogerty, who is both a playwright and a comedian, fluctuates the play's tone between the raging confessions of a deranged sea hag and the bitterly funny commentary of a loquacious woman who might be sunbathing in the next deck chair. An example of the latter: in her continued efforts to cast aspersions at Beowulf, she drolly announces, "and get this: he's not even from here!" Nelson gives a remarkable, mesmerizing performance, physically as well as mentally engaged every moment, comical one minute and raging with venom the next. All I can say is "Wow!"
Allison Vincent directs the piece, and I couldn't begin to tell where the director's work ends and the actor's picks up, but as Vincent is a fellow veteran of Transatlantic Love Affair, I am guessing their collaboration is exceedingly fluid. Richard Graham designed sounds that add color to the spoken descriptions, such as the clatter of a noisy ale room occupied by warriors celebrating their success. Whittney Streeter designed what are called "special props," which I assume includes the sea hag's oversized glowing heart, which, she determines, causes her to love too much.
For $20 less per ticket you can opt to attend only the play and skip the meal that precedes it. However, partaking in the meal provides the sensation of having been summoned by Grendel's mother–who, by the way, was never given a name in the ancient texts, simply called "Grendel's mother"–to sup and then to assuage her fiery swirl of guilt and anger, feels like a cohesive whole. Besides, the food is excellent, with a vegetarian and a gluten free option available.
For those who want an even more complete account of the Beowulf/Grendel saga, Walking Shadow offer an opening act, its one-man production of Beowulf, an adaptation by Charlie Bethel, directed by Amy Rummenie and performed by Walking Shadow's artistic director John Heimbuch. It plays at 5:00 p.p. on March 18, March 25 and April 1 at the Black Forest Inn. I saw their Beowulf via a performance offered on Zoom in the first months of the pandemic and can heartily recommend it. There is a separate pick-your-price ($15, $20, $25) ticket charge. With Feast, Walking Shadow once again pushes the boundaries of what an evening of theater might be like. Their on-stage feast is pungent and saucy, nourishing, intoxicating, and utterly satisfying.
Feast, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, runs through April 1, 2023 at the Black Forest Inn, 1 East 26th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Dinner and Show - pick your price, $55, $60, $65. Show only - pick your price, $20, $25, $30. For tickets and information, please call 612-375-0300 or visit walkingshadow.org.
Playwright: Megan Gogerty; Director: Allison Vincent; Sound Designer: Richard Graham; Props Designer: Whittney Streeter; Dramaturg: Gina Musto; Stage Manager: Brian Hir; Dinner Music: Scott Keever and Sycamore Gap, alternating performances.
Cast: Isabel Nelson