Sunday, March 5, 2023

"Feast" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Black Forest Inn

Walking Shadow Theatre Company's newest production Feast is aptly titled. Yes, you are served a meal in the event space at the Black Forest Inn, a German restaurant on Nicollet in Minneapolis, but that's not the feast I'm talking about. This is a feast of theatrical storytelling delights. This solo play written (and originally performed) by Megan Gogerty is a retelling of the classic story of Beowulf from the point of view of the mother of Grendel, the monster slain by Beowulf. Naturally, the story is a lot different from the perspective of a grieving mother, and the script brilliantly ties this ancient story into modern issues and themes. As director Allison Vincent notes in the playbill, "Sometimes plays speak to the current state of our world. Megan Gogerty's Feast screams at it." Isabel Nelson fully embodies this character, and even though it's only March, I can confidently say that this will prove to be one of the best performances in #TCTheater this year. I recommend getting your tickets now; seating is limited in the space, and word of mouth is going to spread as more people see this show. It continues through April 1 but with only a few performances each weekend, and trust me, you do not want to miss this unique experience.

The evening begins with assigned seating at tables of various sizes in Black Forest Inn's event space (there's a separate entrance off 26th Street). A server will take your order, but for alcoholic drinks (not included in the price) I recommend walking across the patio to order a German bier from the bar in the main restaurant. Dinner is served in three courses while the pre-show musicians play. Perhaps they're still working out timing of service, but I didn't get the main part of the meal until shortly before showtime, which doesn't allow much time for eating (you can continue to eat during the show, but depending on where and how you're sitting that can be awkward). They could serve the delicious soup and bread together instead of as separate courses, and then bring the meal out sooner, allowing more time for eating before the show starts. But that's just logistics that'll probably get smoother as the run continues (update: I'm told that they've hired more servers and that service is running much more smoothly now). The true feast, as I mentioned, is the show.

our host Isabel Nelson (photo by John Heimbach)
The lights dim at showtime, and Isabel Nelson enters the space doubled over and growling like a beast. She slowly works into this human body, and the monster Grendel's unnamed mother begins to tell her story. She speaks directly to the audience, she knows we're there, in fact she invited us so that she could tell us her story. She's studied humans and decided that a dinner party was the best way to get our attention. What follows is a very funny, very entertaining, very engaging journey through this classic tale that makes us look at in a whole new way. A way that brings up issues of abuse of power, the haves and the have-nots, sexism, and justice vs. revenge. It's shockingly modern and relevant, and strangely inspiring as she urges us to join the fight.

Isabel Nelson (photo by John Heimbach)
It's worth nothing that both Allison and Isabel are founding members of the physical theater company Transatlantic Love Affair. You can see a lot of TLA's sensibilities here. Yes there are actual set pieces (a solid regal table and chair) and props (a mug and silverware, and an incredible "special prop" designed by Whittney Streeter which I won't spoil here). But Isabel employs her physical theater skills well here as she embodies the primal monster, the elegant host, and several other characters in the story. We can imagine the setting and people in her story thanks not just to the words but also Isabel's performance; she sees something there, and so do we. 

This is a very up-close-and-personal experience; Isabel walks around the space looking the audience directly in the eyes and feeding off of our reactions. But don't worry, no one dislikes interactive theater more than I do, and this is not that. You're not expected to talk back or get out of your seat, although you might be given something to eat or asked to nod or shake hands. It's immersive and a little participatory, but in a non-threatening way.

This is the kind of theater that reaches right into your soul in a way that's hard to describe. It's more than just a play, it's an experience. Theater is always about give and take between audience and performer, but that can get lost in traditional theater spaces. But not here. It's obvious we're all in this together, although the artists thankfully are doing most of the work and all we have to do is listen, be open, and go along for the ride. Isabel's performance is dramatic, and hilarious, and surprising, and moving. In short, she's everything.

Click here for all of the details (including information about Artistic Director John Heimbuch's solo performance of Beowulf before Saturday Feasts) and to purchase tickets. There is a small show-only seating section as well as the full dinner experience.