To any and all who wish to attend this performance, I offer one piece of advice: take an improv class beforehand. It will help put you at ease for what’s to come. Not quite a hearty feast as it is an intricately staged soirée, A Serious Banquet attempts to immerse you in the spiritual home of avant-garde Cubism, centered around the well-known founders, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and their associates. The ticketed promises of food, drink, and dance are all delivered to varying degrees, but the spark of Cubist insight is, altogether, hit or miss.
Don’t misunderstand; this isn’t to say the experience isn’t worthwhile. It is creative, fun, and inlaid with nuggets of humor, but also tottered by obscure and puzzling allegory. It’s one thing to steer the audience along a contrived descent into madness, and another to leave a roomful of people stupefied. Some acts felt as though they had been more readily inspired by Dada, while others aroused the same feelings incurred by shock art. Frankly, it took half the performance for any “Eureka” moment to manifest and say, “Yes, this is Cubism!”
The premise of the performance is straightforward; you are an esteemed guest among many others, attending a birthday party in honor of the aging Henri Rousseau (Shawn Chua). How readily you adopt this role will ultimately influence your enjoyment and immersion in the plot – which is why an improv class would be beneficial. There’s no time to settle in, as your voluntary involvement is assured the moment you arrive; a living, ornamented art piece (Clara Francesca Pagone) offers a cryptic welcome, and you are whisked into the room by Picasso’s muse and lover, Fernande (Erika Marit Iverson). Very soon, you make your rounds, introducing yourself to each present character.
The overall impression of this is mild discomfort and confusion. You will find yourself hastily straining to recognize important characters. However, don’t fret. The characters themselves are not built like historical representations, but caricatures and parodies of their personalities. They remain flat throughout the sequential plot, and your experience will differ depending on whom you speak with. Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris is a perfect Hollywood movie parallel with a similar premise.
After having viewed the silly entrances of each character, heard poetic gibberish from a talking vase, and faced the haunting dance of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, you are planted at a long row of tables for the second half of the performance. As you scurry for a seat, Fernande encourages everyone to sit between strangers, so any guests you invite will be separated for the majority of the act. Drawling one’s own image of a dinner plate in anticipation of food is amusing, but I advise against attending the show in want of a meal. Between dinner and desert, characters give their comedic tributes to Rousseau and act as rambling drunkards in a somewhat typical procedure. My favorite moment, by far, is in watching Georges Braque’s (Ryan Feyk) modernist effort to remove the concept of “self” from a verse.
Something about the atmosphere left me wanting. The layout of the room did not immediately scream “Cubism,” and small out-of-place details, such as scotch-taped sheets of paper, a partially concealed tablet screen, and neon table cloths really break the illusion of stepping into another world. It felt like someone’s college dorm, rather than Picasso’s studio.
Perhaps I am too harsh, as I come from a background of having studied the lives and works of Picasso and Braque. Like a disappointed fan boy stepping out of a comic book blockbuster, my preconceptions of the immortal icons make it hard to embrace anything different. Nevertheless, the experience is comedic and engaging – albeit effortful for the audience – and the play succeeds in emanating instances of Cubist reverie. Some may enjoy it more than others.
A Serious Banquet – By Jessie Bear, Directed by Erin B. Mee
ITH: Clara Francesca Pagone (The Cube), Erika Marit Iverson (Fernande Olivier), Miranda Kahn (Alice B. Toklas), Caitlin Goldie (Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon A), Lily Narbonne (Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon B), Jilliian A. Puhalla (Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon C), Jeanine T. Abraham (Claire Sinclair), Ryan Feyk (Georges Braque), Vincent William Cooper (Max Jacob), Trey Lyford (Voice of Guillaume Apollinaire), Sandra Maren Schneider (Ida Rubenstein), Stephen Wagener Bennett (Andre Salmon), Ali Kennedy Scott (Gertrude Stein), Kate Reilly (Marie Laurencin), Ashley Wren Collins (Pablo Picasso), Shawn Chua (Henri Rousseau), Shelly Wyant (Voice of Vase), Jacqueline Abbott (Voice of Bottle), Sarah Tolan-Mee (Voice of Apple), and Lily Narbonne (Voice of Peach).
Sound by Ryan M Hall and Mathew Wilson; Choreography by Olga Dobrowolska; Props by Ali Daschis; Directing Consultant, Shelly Wyant; Stage Manager, Sophia Cohen-Smith; The Cube made by Processional Arts; Interactive Guitar Composition by Aaron Einbond; Picasso Painting Lamps by Disenos de Mar Gorgulione Torres; Henna Lamps by Leila Satyanath-Mee; Dinner made by Jeanine T. Abraham; Dessert made by The Treats Truck. At Judson Church and New York Theater Workshop, 55 Washington Square S and 79 E 4th Street, Manhattan, www.thisisnotatheatrecompany.com, Through June 19. Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes