It’s hard to describe Are They Edible? and quite do it justice. It’s something of a roving thing, a multimedia, puppet-led versions of Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, with a food fixation. But even that doesn’t quite cover it. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s production – premiering at La Mama ETC – is both sublime and ridiculous, and yet one sometimes feels that beyond the giddy glee of it all, the insight offered is limited.
If it had just contented itself with being a multi-sensory experience, then that would be one thing. But in the first act, the audience is treated to a variety of tableaux, each of which is connected to a cryptic monologue on the nature of violence and gluttony. Ideas of abstinence, craving and starvation permeate the piece. None of which is explored in as much depth as it might be. And yet it remains a memorable, inventive production.
The early scenes occur in a variety of boxes operated by the multi-talented ensemble. In one, a “breathing” chicken carcass turns into a battlefield. In another, a music box is cut open to reveal ballet dancers. Food, and its consumption, is a recurring trope, and while this could become gimmicky or tiresome, it never does. Instead, the show’s focus on the theme of the edible in The Odyssey becomes a lens through which to view the narrative, even if the connection between food and violence is never particularly well developed. These ideas – food and violence, nourishment and destruction – are perhaps most strongly linked during a scene in which the ensemble play with, and then destroy, a still life of foodstuffs as they enact the Trojan War. And yet this scene is perhaps the least enjoyable, least successfully choreographed and hardest with which to connect.
After the opening series of boxes (which include a particularly delicious fondue/light installation combo in one corner) the destruction of Odysseus’ boat is depicted via a perspex box filled with waves and a vacuum cleaner. What at first seems clumsy makes more sense when the vacuum bag is cut open to reveal a sea of little green army men. This is just one of the striking visual images that are everywhere in this production, from the women who sing lilting close-harmonic nocturnes, to a moment in which the puppet Telemachus is covered in chicken feathers as he lies in bed.
The relationship between this visual invention and the narrative momentum of the piece is problematic. Odysseus’ battle with Poseidon has been otherwise cut and the Gods are written out of the narrative early on in proceedings. The only divine intervention left in the story is the journey to the underworld, a scene with some excellent projection work which makes full use of the audience as an interactive element of the production, the puppet Odysseus walking across our outstretched hands.
The finest moments are the ones that really embrace the food theme, the gourmand in Homer. The sirens dole out shots of absinthe from their fantastic jugs and, as the crew captures the cattle of Helios, the ensemble begin to cook steaks with which they then feed to a grateful audience. Later Penelope places a banqueting table on the stage which is covered in a fabric that melds into her dress. It is a scene change so expertly performed and so elegantly designed that it deserves special praise, and not just for the gorgeous red velvet cake that comes with it.
The puppetry throughout is excellent, but it’s always part of a larger aesthetic, and when the elements all fit together, which they frequently do, it’s a show that reminds you of just how fun theatre can be.