Review of The Meal, Yale Cabaret
James Joyce once described “eating a thing” as “the apple pie essence of knowing a thing”—an idea that has some relevance to Brazilian playwright Newton Moreno’s The Meal, translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques at Yale Cabaret. The three-part play is subtitled, with thoughts of Montaigne, as “Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism.” Montaigne, in his famous sixteenth-century essay “Of Cannibals,” considers that the act of eating someone after death is not nearly so barbaric as the kinds of tortures his own people visit upon their enemies while alive. The point—and the relevant passage from Montaigne is provided as a handout by production dramaturg Nahuel Telleria—is that barbarity is relative, and the reasons for cannibalism may have something more to do with Joyce’s idea: what we ingest and digest becomes a part of us, and that may be a fitting end for a relative’s corpse or for a portion of one’s beloved.
Moreno’s play does not shy away from the grisly aspects of such a practice, but it doesn’t dwell on them either. What it aims at instead is what might be called—and Montaigne would concur—the humanistic aspects of such practices. The first scene, “Hospital Room,” is between lovers (Arturo Soria, Rachel Kenney). Here, the cannibalistic impulse is seen as part of the giving and taking that fuel any passionate attachment: possessing and knowing find expression in availing oneself of the beloved’s actual flesh. In a Christian culture that retains the ancient Greek religious sense of sparagmos (or dismemberment and, often, eating of a god or a god’s stand-in) in Communion, as eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, the metaphorical sense of consuming flesh—as “becoming one”—is apt to feel powerfully motivated. We sometimes say one has a “consuming” or “devouring” passion: a feeling that “eats one alive,” but that also might be expressed as wanting to eat someone else alive. Machado and Marques let the actors play with the erotics of such matters in an adroit, questioning manner.
In the second segment, “The Gutter,” the more exploitative aspects of anthropophagy are displayed when a rather jaded libertine-type played by José Espinosa goes slumming amongst those who will sell whatever it takes to survive. Which might include satisfying a predilection for human flesh. In a capitalist world where we are proud to be consumers and commodities—what other purpose do we serve?—the “naked lunch” style of this segment is pointed, and pulled-off well by Espinosa. It’s the point at which the notion of cannibalism—as the richer or more powerful abusing and taking advantage of the lesser—becomes, indeed, unpalatable. And yet we might take our cue from Montaigne and wonder about the less visible eviscerations that are taking place all the time, to satisfy the jaded appetites of our moneyed class. Moreno’s script plays the scene as mostly a monologue, and yet the exploited figure (Soria), however degraded, invites sympathy. But Espinosa’s character does as well, as any drug addict, at the mercy of his vices, might.
In “Jungle,” Kenney plays an anthropologist or maybe just a journalist—someone investigating the ways of a people who retain a tradition of cannibalism. As a dying remnant of that culture, Jake Lozano lounges in a hammock and tries to impart the views of his culture, even if he feels the context into which he is speaking to be somewhat false. History, we know, is a way of making other people—in the past or in other places—meaningful (and often exploitable) to ourselves. Lozano does a great job of making his character cryptic and self-absorbed but also concerned with what the record—particularly a recording of him singing—will show. And what of Kenney’s observer? Can she accept her interlocutor’s world view far enough to offer him the tribute of consuming some part of him?
Moreno’s play is strong in the virtue of dialogue and monologue: that speech is a means to enact difference and deliberation. The play, for all its provocative material, feels static—in keeping with the notion of these scenes as “dramatic essays.” Here, all interaction is subservient to theme. There is little relief in the further possibilities of character. The most tendentious presentation is that of “Jungle,” saved by Lozano’s nuanced rendering; the most entertaining is “Hospital,” if only because twists in love stories tends to be the stuff of comedy; “Gutter” is, for obvious reasons, the most unsettling, and cast and directors keep the tone suitably arch.
Not a light night of theater, The Meal feels contemporary both in its opening of questions of taboos and as an uneasy repast in the context of liberal capitalism’s effort to incorporate everything it touches.
The Meal: Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism
By Newton Moreno
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques
Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Elli Green; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena; Producer: Leandro Zaneti
Cast: José Espinosa; Rachel Kenney; Jake Lozano; Arturo Soria
February 2-4, 2017