“But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.” —Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture
Trash Cuisine is a play about the visceral horrors of political violence. The overarching conceit, calculated to turn stomachs, compares forms of torture and execution — waterboarding, firing squad, hanging, electric chair, forced cannibalism (a particularly revolting dish from Rwanda) — to courses in a tasting menu. At the end, nine members of the Belarus Free Theatre line up their wooden stools in front of the audience, chop onions with big knives, and hurl the onion parts at the audience, forcibly extracting tears. This is weaponized theater — fighting fire with fire — which tends to provoke intense reactions that differ widely from person to person and develop over time. Here are some of ours.
Tuesday, May 12
6:52pm: AndrewAndrew and Sam’s wife, Erin, meet Sam at KGB Bar and have a shot of whiskey, then walk across the street to La MaMa to see the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) perform Trash Cuisine (TC).
8:34pm: After the performance, Sam, AA, and Erin return to KGB Bar to retrieve AA’s wallet, then walk southeast to Parkside Lounge. AA rave about the inventive choreography and precision of movement in the production, comparing it to Pina Bausch and Steven Hoggett. Everyone agrees that the show’s tasting menu of political violence produced flavors and aromas of disgust with the devastatingly relentless inventiveness of, say, Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz on a bad trip.
But at Parkside, dissent over details flares up into a booze-fueled bonfire of debate. Sam complains that by asking the audience, when leaving, to sign a petition to ban capital punishment in the United States and to return the dead bodies of Belarusian political prisoners to their families, the BFT is both conflating disparate issues and demanding more clarity than its play provides. Should violence be outlawed just because it’s gruesome? Sam says no, because you can’t banish violence from the environment as a whole — why, then, should humans alone be free of it? AA protest that capital punishment is wrong, uncivilized, and an embarrassment to being human. Erin notes that the US government executing a person condemned to death by a jury of his or her peers, whether right or wrong, is vastly different from a Hutu father executing and cooking his children by a Tutsi woman during the Rwandan genocide. We part ways feeling sad and confused.
Wednesday, May 13
5:08pm: Sam reads Ben Brantley’s review of TC, decides that Ben is pretty much right that “a feeling of randomness emerges” from such widely different violent ingredients being thrown together, begins thinking about breadth vs. focus. Sam texts AA about this. AA agree and ask if Sam wants to get a drink.
7:45pm: Sam drafts several paragraphs of a review that posits two strands of the avant-garde, one commonly known as “political,” one commonly known as “apolitical.” BFT, The Living Theatre, Workers’ Laboratory Theatre are former; Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, New York City Players are latter. Strength of political is sharpness/narrowness, strength of apolitical its breadth/contextualizations. TC is faulty attempt by narrow political strand to contextualize.
11:32pm: At Remedy Diner, the conversation again turns to violence and whether violence is ever justified. Sam refers to the political strand of the avant-garde as Leninist. AA, recalling that we went to KGB before and after La MaMa, suggest we write the review in the voice of Joseph Stalin — as if we had FaceTimed Joseph Stalin and asked him what he thought about the play! Because, AA suggest, Stalin probably would’ve admired the technique and yet like Sam protested that to suggest violence is wrong because it is gruesome is misleading. Everyone agrees this is a fucking amazing idea. Erin furiously scours Joseph Stalin’s biography for usable details; she learns that his favorite ballet was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
Thursday, May 14
12:14pm: Per prior plans, Sam and AA go to Lincoln Center’s Theater on Film and Tape Archive and watch the Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road. AA want to watch Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin but have to leave to DJ a party in Prospect Park. Sam stays and watches The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (14 hours total), discovers it has nothing to do with Stalin, leaves after one hour.
5:22pm: After reading more about Belarus, its Stalinist President, Alexander Lukashenko, and his persecutions of the BFT, Sam realizes that the stakes for a review in the voice of Stalin are very high, and becomes nervous. Craving more information, he reads Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech, which the BFT had used in an earlier political play, Being Harold Pinter. After reading Pinter’s bracing exposé of American obliviousness to American military and corporate violence against non-Americans, Sam decides that TC was not a quasi-Leninist assault on violence vulnerable to a neo-Leninist critique, but simply a good old-fashioned consciousness-raising device. He FaceTimes AA freaking out about how the Stalin review is not going to work. Because the truth of the play feels so elusive, they scrap the Stalin angle in favor of an opinion timeline, in order to represent more transparently the evolution of their reactions to the play.
10:18pm: Timeline is assembled through scrupulous documentary, oral, and neuronal research. Sam obsesses over formatting and punctuation. AA ogle a photograph of the young Stalin. Erin draws cartoons.
Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine ran at La MaMa (66 E 4th Street, second floor, East Village, Manhattan) from April 25 to May 17.
Co-authored by Erin Cooper
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