“The Taster” by Joan Ackermann/ Directed by Tina Packer/ Shakespeare & Co.
SEE THIS PLAY, I urge you. The abundant pleasures of “The Taster” pile up at the Founders’ Theater in Lenox in a true feast. Earth-wisdom, human connection, imagination and play-cooking smarts are joyfully stirred together by playwright Joan Ackermann, director Tina Packer and some extraordinary actors.
It is about a man whose life’s work is to taste the food of a king before it is served to him. The king is one-fourth of the play’s two dysfunctional couples, one contemporary and one from the early 16th century. The couples are linked in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that they are played by the same actors.
That device is merely one of hundreds of linkings, literal, metaphorical, “plotical,” verbal and visual. The food metaphor is the most obvious one: food as our inexorable link to the earth and bodily realities. (Early in the play the taster gets out of bed, turns upstage and apparently pees into a bucket.) Ackermann offers unidentifiable food in a paper carton, food as a life’s work, food as our way of nourishing one another, and food as purveyor of poisons. Another concept is “voice.” Voice, as in singing, speaking and as our crucial means of transmitting meaning and reaching out to one another. (The playwright has one.) Voice is one character’s profession, another’s impairment both physically and psychologically. The taster speaks of a cricket that sang on his pillow, and crickets sing at the end of the play. And of course there are the expansive contexts of the words “taste” and “tasting.”
Hundreds of lesser links or “leitmotifs” live in this play, gestures small and large that arrive and return and return, giving the audience frissons of happy recognition.
As the time frames drift into one another, often a character from the previous one lingers in the shadows of the new scene, becoming another leitmotif, a non-verbal connector.
The medieval taster, Octavio, has a modern counterpart, a nutritionist. Theses roles are played by the same actor, Rocco Sisto. In their own ways, both characters are nurturers. Structurally, the nutritionist is not balanced with the king’s taster, so the playwright and the actor give him short shrift. But Sisto pours his astonishing emotional range, beauty and freedom into the character of the taster. He starts with his first communicator: body. It glides; it stands with dignity, tall and still; it sits, moving expressive hands through the tasting ritual; when it needs to, it galumphs and gallops or sits on the floor in careful Asian profile.
But back to “range.” Sisto’s is broad, long, tall, fat and deep. In musical terms it is ppp to fff, lento to presto agitato. (It is easy to fall into musical terms as this play’s architecture is musical.) All this he accomplishes without a hint of actorish narcissism.
The performance of Tom O’Keefe, as both the Basque king and as the modern Henry (translator of the story of the Basque queen, king and taster) is also rangy. From his entrance as the near-catatonic, voiced-impaired, severely depressed Henry to a boyish, leaping, royal new father is definitely rangy and believable. The actor is particularly touching while inhabiting the king’s faulty understandings and his quick, loving forgiveness. His emotions while reading aloud (in Basque, one presumes) are completely clear, even though the words are unintelligible to most of us. An impressive actor’s exercise, perhaps.
Though it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Sisto and O’Keefe in these roles, the double role of opera singer and singing queen could be successfully played by many a gifted singer/actress. Even so, the lovely Maureen O’Flynn is excellent, especially in her queen’s fury and in her simple Basque lullaby.
No one can separate the art of the director from the art of the actor, but surely Packer deserves a huge lump of gratitude for allowing, or encouraging, or inspiring and shaping the amazing actor output that happens here. Her staging has a particular language of its own, and the collaboration offers us fresh thinking, laughter, and a revived appreciation for connection and aliveness.
The set, with a four-poster bed at center and two table-chair areas, left and right, appears unlikely at first, but it proves to be a marvel of functional clarity. The back wall is a huge parchment with text, presumably the story of the Basque royal couple and their taster. The ladder that climbs to a moon-filled window may remind you of Emily’s moon-window in various recent productions of “Our Town.” Although both plays send related unsentimental messages to humanity (stay grounded, nurture voice, and taste! despite its dangers), in “The Taster” they are purveyed with an unusual and very particular dramatic language.
The character who speaks to us directly at the beginning, eats on stage at intermission, and, at the end, drags us out of our immersion in this beautiful play seems more like the playwright’s unnecessary bow to post-modernism than a communicative device. Little matter. It does only minor damage to a superb evening.
“We are all translators, translating all the time,” says one character. Such is playwriting and receiving what one can in the first taste of a play.
At one point, Octavio provides a lesson in the art and profession of tasting. He and the king stand side-by side, still and quiet, with a rock in each hand, connecting themselves to the earth.
Though everyone involved with this production obviously can fly, they also know how to stand with a rock in each hand.
For tickets, call (413) 637-3353.