Zap!, Feast or Famine, and Junk Food

Live Bait Theatre

By Carol Burbank

If the “Much Ado About Food” festival at Live Bait were reduced to a grade-school primer, it would look something like this:

See America eat!

See America eat fast food!

See America diet!

Diet America! Eat!

Such is the catch-22 of our privilege. And a whole smorgasbord of performances honor our passionate if schizophrenic relationships with food: what we eat and how we eat it becomes our identity, our security blanket, and sometimes our curse.

Mary Ruth Clarke’s Zap! combines the culture of food with the history of technology, tracing the development of the microwave oven from its introduction in 1967. In each scene the characters are volunteers at advertising focus groups convened over three decades, and the fourth wall becomes an invisible mirror, making the audience the hidden executives observing their discussions. Stacked televisions frame the stage, marking the passage of time with collages of commercials, sitcoms, and trade-show videos from the years between focus groups. The original characters sometimes return, changing costume, career, and slang to reflect political and social shifts, and other focus groups are made up of their relatives and acquaintances.

This lively play examines the development of at-home dining, from home-cooked fast food through nuked meals, as the industry’s consumers shift from harried housewives to working women and, most recently, to children and single men. Snappy one-liners and the cast’s sharp characterizations combine to transform a potentially static idea into a lighthearted, historically savvy production. Our love affair with convenience reveals a bullheaded yet oddly admirable people who will put up with unevenly cooked food, radiation, and condescending packaging in order to save time. Through this ironic portrayal of American consumerism we witness the advance of feminism and computers, the imaginative force of the space race and futuristic science fiction, and the increasing distance between the production and consumption of food.

Feast or Famine and Junk Food are less satisfying fare, variety shows that poke fun at our dysfunctional obsessions with food. Performances about eating and eating disorders often begin with a desperate joviality and struggle throughout to banish a false perkiness about the food orgy/food guilt cycle being parodied. Writers unwilling to find their comedy in the depths of our dangerous and self-destructive food patterns opt to simplify and personalize the habits that lead to my favorite euphemism, “the weight.” You’ve heard the refrain “When I finally lose the weight I will have amazing sex, travel to Europe, and love myself.” No one believes it’s true, but everyone wants it to be. Very few distance themselves from this obsession sufficiently to understand the cultural “weight” behind our concern with eating and dieting and to create radical, transformative comedy.

Feast or Famine starts with an interesting premise: a lush-bodied woman, nagged by her mother to lose weight, embarks on a weight-loss plan that carries her into an Alice in Wonderland dream. Traveling through the hallucinogenic doorway of her refrigerator, Alice discovers that her orgasmic response to food is healthy and accepts her size. The Lewis Carroll parody is smart–a diet counselor is the Cheshire Cat, and two frenzied joggers are Tweedledum and Tweedledee–but Alice’s various adventures, written by different people, connect only loosely. And her journey seems a little cliched; I wanted her to accept herself and her orgasmic pleasure, but her reconciliation with her larger-than-anorexic body was sudden and unbelievable. The performance is strongest when it’s most surreal, particularly the lyrically physical scenes by Valerie Fashman and Michele Adams in an intriguing three-ring circus of women’s unhealthy relationships with food. But on the whole the narrative force is uneven, the comedy and polemics at odds.

Junk Food is both less political and less ambitious comedically. Skits and songs about eating or preparing food have been patched together to make a rambling evening without clear or interesting transitions. The earnest performers mock the usual targets: hillbillies, Martha Stewart, bad acting teachers, the Irish, and unhappily married people. Although not all the work is as glib as Jeff Garlin’s “I Am Fat” monologue, there is a brutality to the humor, which is derived from sitcom stereotypes rather than characters. The energy builds disconcertingly into a stand-up comedy frenzy and veers without warning into a casual deadpan style. The strongest performer is Shirley Anderson, who plays “The Woman Who Forgot How to Eat” and the blindingly perky “Circus Peanut Song”; she makes the most out of the limited material. Still, the cast’s efforts to convince us to laugh at our foibles and accept our weakness for junk food barely raised a chuckle on opening night.

It’s hard to create comedy about food for a food-obsessed audience (and let s/he who is without guilty appetite cast the first Twinkie). We laugh because we’re uncomfortable, or we laugh because we want to laugh at someone fatter/skinnier/more miserable than we are. Clarke has the right idea, using the history of food technology and marketing to help us understand our obsession with food. After all, we aren’t really what we eat; it’s more how and why we eat that make us the people–and the country–that we are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos / Suzanne Plunkett.