First Nighter: Trash Cuisine Scrutinizes Man's Inhumanity to Man

04/29/2015 08:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

It's been said that theater emanating from repressed societies is the most pungent. You certainly believe it's the god's honest truth at Trash Cuisine, which the Belarus Free Theatre -- free only by some definitions -- is presenting at La MaMa, after showing it for some time in many places (but Belarus), as a continuing collaboration between the company and the Public Theater.

After walking onto an empty space carrying low stools, the eight company members -- four women and four men -- introduce themselves and state their national origins. (Most of them are from Belarus but may not be residing there now.)

Then as they repeatedly rearrange the stools, they present a prelude choreographed by Bridget Fiske in which they mime almost every sort of torture and assassination imaginable. The cast members -- serving at one time or another as persecutor and victim -- mime beatings, waterboarding, hanging, beheading, electrocution. You name it, and short of pulling out fingernails and toenails, they get around to it.

Having established that they're absorbed with man's inhumanity to man, man's inhumanity to woman, woman's inhumanity to man and woman's inhumanity to woman and, by their actions, implying this is the quintessential human condition, one of the members -- individually they're Victoria Biran, Karyl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Esther Mugambi, Stephanie Pan, Pave Radak-Haradnitski, Maryia Sazonava, Philippe Spall, Arkadiy Yushkin -- explains he's chef Pierre Noir and that what follows will be a survey of not necessarily palatable international recipes.

Food prepared and served, however, only occupies their concerns intermittently. One sequence has Chef Noir eating an ortolan whole, a gustatorial endeavor sometimes considered barbaric. He spares patrons the sight by devouring it with a napkin over his face.

What does occupy the performers' time and efforts are representations of authenticated miscarriages of justice, often involving horrific exterminations. As written by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada and directed by Khalezin, it's beside the point to describe the incidents they recount in order to declare the worst. (Additional contributions have been made by Stephanie Pan, Nastassia Shcherbak, Aleh Sidorchyk, Clive Stafford Smith and Philippe Spall.)

Let it be sufficient to say that depictions of the warring Hutus and Tutsis are thoroughly unsettling. The display of a woman tortured by watching her children slain, then cooked and given to her to ingest is further evidence of the chilling depths to which the Belarus Free Theatre is ready to go to make their pressing case. As a backdrop to the murders of the children, Chef Noir is seen upstage working over a skillet.

To supplement the dread, there are recitations of William Shakespeare speeches, among them Shylock's Merchant of Venice demanding his pound of flesh in court and Claudius's prayer in Hamlet for forgiveness he knows he neither deserves nor will receive.

Towards the beginning of the proceedings, two executioners blithely compare their policies and pay rates while around them others are methodically doing in the condemned. Later, one of the company demonstrates, as if she's a variety show impersonator, the sounds killing methods make.

The 90-minute Trash Cuisine -- which ends with a full-blown dance wherein the cast members assault one another -- doesn't precisely fit Antonin's definition for the Theater of Cruelty. Yet, regarded from another perspective, it's as close to the definition of theater depicting unbridled cruelty as a production is likely to get.

As a result, no one would ever make an argument for Trash Cuisine being easy to sit through. At the same time, watching it, as played by the determinedly somber company, has its compensation. Certainly, theatergoers always on the lookout for something they've never seen before are guaranteed to find that here. It's as if they're seeing Francisco Goya's worst "Disasters of War" drawings spring to life.