I’m a sucker for Shakespeare. And having lived on Capitol Hill for more than a decade and enjoyed many events at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the opportunity to participate in an “immersive theater experience,” held in the library’s opulent and rarely-accessed Paster and Sedgwick-Bond reading rooms that also included desserts was deliciously alluring.
My appetite was also whet by the broader themes Folger sought to convey in commissioning Confection from New York’s Third Rail Projects theater company, as part of its larger collaborative research project, “Before ‘Farm to Table:’ Early Modern Foodways and Cultures.” Food, one of our most basic needs, shaped not only the landscapes of early modern cultures, but also the structure of those societies and the ethics of consumption. In particular, affluent societies’ cravings for ever more ‘worldly’ tastes—sugar, exotic spices, fresh fruits and meat, coffee—were satisfied by the lower classes, forced to toil and labor while subsisting on bread and beer.
Using historical accounts of lavish social feasts held by the 17th century aristocracy, Confection promised to address a vast multitude of issues: the “unevenness of food supply,” “the development and spread of tastes with their darker supply sides of enslaved labor” and the “socially cohesive rituals of eating together.” Tantalizing taglines posed the questions, “how much does sweetness cost and what are we willing to devour to satisfy our appetites?” For a 50-minute “multi-sensory dance and theater performance,” it was a lot to bite off.
Confection has some beautiful, and very enjoyable moments. Ushered into the solemn hush of the Paster reading room, with its plush carpets, ornately carved walls and soaring cathedral ceiling, you are greeted by an almost comically long dinner table. A large scroll is unrolled slowly down the length of the table with chandeliers overhead sparking to life in perfect time with its unfurling. A blueprint of a banquet table set for 50 shows the outlines of hundreds of plates of various shapes and sizes (though none as big as modern dinner plates) that overlap like glittering scales, a series of doll-sized utensils at the ready.
A performer (Marissa Nielsen-Pincus) sets the scene, describing what it might have been like to attend a 17th century banquet, whether as a diner, a server, or a spectator invited for the sole privilege of watching the diners feast. The remaining members of the 5-person cast, dreamily dressed in all white Elizabethan undergarments—shifts, corsets and loose breaches—stroll and dance atop the table, greeting their humble guests, or else, recline decadently to pantomime gleeful nibbling of invisible, clearly delectable, morsels.
closes March 24, 2019
Details and tickets
The evening has a joyful, festive air as the audience, separated into groups of a dozen or less, are then led off to smaller rooms. Silently directed to our next location, we pass silver trays heaped with all-white, chalky confections and sprays of white flowers draped along walls of leather-spined books. A heavily-laden banquet table featuring a towering, ghostly-white croquembouche creates the eerie sense that Miss Havisham has only just stepped out for a smoke.
In the new, more intimate, spaces the performers—now 1 or 2 to a group—launch languidly into vignettes of a much darker sort. Servants are stripped down and their worth measured in pounds of sugar. The audience is asked to play a ‘game’ in which some will feast while others might starve. While the cast were to-a-one charming, their performances utterly believable, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable, as though I was being food shamed, or given a thinly-veiled lecture on the importance of sharing.
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Reunited at the dining table, we were invited to share some gorgeous and utterly delectable (but truly teeny tiny) desserts designed by local pâtissier The Lupin Baking Company. Blame my sweet tooth, but given the ticket price of $60-100 per person, I would have appreciated a little more to feast on.
Back in the lobby, the exhibits for the Folger’s Before Farm to Table collaboration, added much-needed context to the class struggles surrounding food that shaped these early modern societies. Worth a visit on their own, scratched out recipes from George Washington’s head chef at Mount Vernon – an enslaved man who eventually escaped—and some of the earliest recipe and etiquette books for ‘modern’ housewives tell their own tales. While Confection is an interesting and well-performed piece, I left the theater wishing that more of the historical details on display in the lobby had made their way into the performance.
Confection by Third Rail Projects, commissioned by Folger Theatre. Directed and Choreographed by Zach Morris., with Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, and created in collaboration with the company: Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Justin Lynch and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. Dan Daly, Assistant Scenic Design. Karen Young, Costume Design. Brittany Shemuga, Lighting Design. Sean Hagerty, Sound Design. Kristina Vnook, Stage Manager. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.