Posted by: strugglesome | October 8, 2012

Eat Me: Back to Back Theatre Company’s Food Court

In the darkest recesses of our souls lie monsters. They are frightening not because then are from without, but because they come from within. They live in us, they feed off our fear, our hatred and our worst desires, they sip deep from bitter cups of our most wretched selves. And the scariest part of all? We don’t know what these monsters look like, until we see them. Often we only see them reflected in the eyes of other people.

Back to Back Theatre is a company made entirely of outsiders, people with perceived disabilities, people who aren’t like the rest of us. Their outlier stories are, in their own words, the tales of “a group of people who, in a culture obsessed with perfection and surgically enhanced ‘beauty’, are the real outsiders” (Source) In their piece, Food Court, recently presented at the Live Arts/Fringe Festival, six company members/devisors (Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price, directed by Bruce Gladwin) and five performers (Deans, Holland, Mainwaring, Price and Sonia Teuben) tell a very simple story, and the term simple is used in the Aristotelian sense of a “simple plot”.

Aristotle, in his contribution to/noose around the neck of theater, described complex and simple plots. Complex plots are ones that involve rising action, reversal, revelation and climax. Simple plots are ones in which nothing every changes, it just becomes more and more intense. As humans we tend to prefer the complex to the simple, as the illusion of problems solved and secrets revealed is somehow comforting and exciting to us at the same time. But simple plots, in their bewildering sameness and deafening eventual intensity, can hold the power to surprise us by how deeply we react to them.

Food Court begins, as one might guess, in a food court, probably of a mall (where else have you ever seen a food court). Already the stage is set as a public space, one soaked with the commodification of social interaction in its most blatant and mundane form. Two women in gold leotards and tights enter from behind the curtains, giving us their front and side views like convicts or dogs at a show. The women sit on two chairs, and survey a third woman from across the stage. They begin to comment on her, her appearance, how grotesquely fat she is, wondering why she doesn’t talk. Their commentary is amplified by a microphone being helpfully stuck underneath their faces. Unresponsive, the third woman simply remains in her seat. The two commentators cross to the seated silent woman and confront her directly, with the same ugly words as before. She continues to be unresponsive. The world of the play fades then, from plastic tables and canned smells, to a forest (set by Gladwin and Mark Cuthbertson). Our tortured silent figure is, from behind a sight-blurring plastic sheet, tortured by her tormentors, who grow in number, and force her to strip and submit to a severe beating. More and more spectators gather to watch her pain, and then she is left, trembling on the ground. Because of the plastic sheet which completely curtains the action, this is all seen from a featureless distance, and as we watch the systematic destruction of this abused figure, we thank God for it.

Finally, when the stage is bare but for the woman, she restores her clothing and stands, walking up to the edge of the curtain and, from behind the plastic, giving the speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, declaimed by that most pitiful of outsiders, Caliban:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
And all this to a score improved at every performance by The Necks (Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck).
Simple as this plot is it forces us to consider our role in the performance. How complicit are we in this abuse? How complicit are we in depriving those we consider to be different any choices? If we define people by our commentary upon them, we are effectively robbing them of the opportunity to self-define, to explain their own lives, to make choices about who they are. By watching people who we perceive to be different perform themselves, perform their own disabilities onstage for us to purposefully consider, we are placed in a position to truly examine our own attitudes and assumptions about people, how our commentary, internal and external, abuses and oppresses those around us. Caliban, the character whose voice our silent figure finally adopts, is at once monstrous and magnificent, capable of grotesque cruelty and divine poetry. Just like us.
The story takes its actions from the realm of nightmare, of the monsters lurking ready and willing to do grave harm, to strip and beat and ridicule and mock anything that is different, beyond us, other. With thumping vibration echoing through the piece, courtesy of the Necks, and calmly plain performances by all members of the piece, we are presented with a piece that increases in intensity from start to finish, showing us the same thing, really, the abuse of one person by another person, over and over and over again until we see that its ultimate end is violence, humiliation, alienation and pain. Oh, that we could dream again.
The impact of this piece, like the build of it, is slow-spreading but resonant on every level. Who are we, that we can oppress those around us with such systematic violence and determination? Are we Prospero, manipulating the world around us to our own ends? And how do we stop? Food Court doesn’t offer us any answers. It just shows us people we normally train ourselves not to look at, walking, talking, performing, hurting each other, and, in its final moments, giving their desires a voice. Maybe, for now, that’s enough.
Food Court has finished its run.
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