By Lynn Venhaus
It is tempting to use food metaphors to describe “Feast.” After all, we are the invited guests at a banquet presided over by a glamorous and flamboyant hostess, who appears to be gracious and welcoming.
The carefully crafted experience is not unlike a tasting menu prepared by a Michelin- starred chef. Playwright Megan Gogerty and dramaturg Melissa Trepa have deftly mixed textures and flavors to create bold statements and subtle undercurrents.
A St. Louis premiere, this unusual and provocative one-woman show is an ambitious work by the intrepid Gogerty, written in 2019. She has woven a tapestry using images of an ancient myth, revisionist thinking on the classic literature “Beowulf” and a cultural reckoning.
In an Old English epic poem set in the 6th century, the valiant Beowulf is lauded for his strength over demons and beasts. He has traveled to help a king whose hall is terrorized by a monster, Grendel. He slays Grendel and later kills his mother, but not before she has crushed an advisor, Aeschere, in retaliation. Later, the hero becomes king, ruling for 50 years, but is eventually defeated by a dragon. Despite his death, a feast goes on in his honor.
In one of her finest performances yet, a fiery Donna Parrone reveals a personal tale of vengeance, in vivid details. We witness a maelstrom of outrage, grief and feminist comeuppance as she seethes with anger – and is gleeful about her perceived victory against a mighty enemy.
This unnamed character, the “She” here, is mother to Grendel. She might be a magical mythological creature disguised as a middle-aged woman, trying to reconcile past actions. As she reflects on what she has done, there are greater implications regarding humanity.
At first, she comes across as mercurial, and as she discloses the reasons behind her rage, she delves deeper into her emotions, recalling past grievances. Hell hath no fury liked wronged mothers.
Gogerty, using the tragedy as power, makes the case that maybe Beowulf is not such a good guy after all – especially if you read between the lines and view it from the eyes of a mother.
The Tesseract Theatre Company, which specializes in presenting new plays in intimate settings, always has something to say – using drama to create a new point of view.
Maybe you haven’t thought about “Beowulf” since college. Perhaps you have never read it (I admit my ignorance). Even with the “Feast” reimagining, it’s worth knowing the basic plot — but you can enjoy the presentation as a newbie, especially as a universal truth about dominant male patriarchy and how society views motherhood.
That’s because director Shane Signorino, no stranger to the classics, has made sure the political overtones can be translated to the present. As we have sadly been forced to confront, authoritarianism isn’t just in the past. Kayla Bush is the assistant director.
Signorino moves Parrone all over the small space with purpose – pleading, scoffing, distressed. This woman refuses to be ignored. It’s one of those virtuoso portrayals where you are mesmerized by the nuances, the change in tempo and tone – and the interpretation of every mood and meaning.
This absorbing production is challenging in ways we have missed during the pandemic. Parrone demands that we listen. Quiet, please – there is a lady on stage! She has been wronged in the worst possible way. After the loss of a child, mothers have an unfathomable depth of sorrow, and this woman, on the periphery of a dark abyss, must be heard.
Parrone has specialized in strong women roles during the past few years, particularly at Tesseract, and one of her finest performances was as Lee Harvey Oswald’s controlling mother Marguerite in “Mama’s Boy” by Rob Urbanati, presented in the fall of 2018.
But this demanding role is on another level and requires a special reserve of stamina.
The technical elements – scenic and lighting design by Taylor Gruenloh and Brittanie Gunn, sound by Megan Barris, music – all create an atmosphere that is highly theatrical.
Watching Parrone’s physicality makes the show very real. She interacts with the audience, with some seated at a few tables, and in chair groupings. You can’t not be a part of the dinner party.
Yes, it’s serious – but it is inspired and not devoid of humor. Consider the presentation as food for thought. If you are hungry for an uncommon drama, “Feast” is worth tasting.
The play runs from June 11 to 27, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 4 p.m. Sundays at the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust. Tickets are available at MetroTix.com
You can request socially distanced seating, and they ask that your masks remain on during the performance for the safety of all patrons.