There are two fairly horrific scenes in Trash Cuisine, the newest work by Belarus Free Theater. In the first, the host of a global cooking show that is also called “Trash Cuisine,” explains in unsavory detail the centuries-old ritual of catching, preparing and eating a rare songbird, the ortolan, that in France at least is considered the nec plus ultra of culinary delicacies (the late French president and gastronome François Mittérand feasted on two for his last supper). In the second, while that same TV host fries up slices of meat on a hotplate, the focus turns to a story from the Rwandan genocide, during which ritualistic cannibalism was reportedly practiced.
Without spoiling the surprises of that scene, it’s safe to reveal that the commingling of vignettes like these, and many others in Trash Cuisine, which is meant to “blend in elements of various national cuisines in order to emphasize local flavors of violence” (from the show’s press release) crosses a line. The problem is not so much a transgressing of good taste (although maybe that, too), but of ethical objectivism. Are we to feel the same moral indignation over the killing of an ortolan and mass murder? Are ortolan-eaters murderers at heart? (Fun fact: chef Alan Ducasse is lobbying the French government to weaken conservation protections on the bird so he can serve it again in his Michelin-starred restaurants…).
True to its ten years of provocative, political theater from Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, Belarus Free Theater is pulling no punches in Trash Cuisine. In fact, it deliberately hits below the belt, even inducing the desire to vomit. But ruffling feathers is the modus operandi of this fearless company whose members are now split between London and Minsk, after founders Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin were forced into exile for opposing the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Although the ensemble now includes an Australian, a Franco-Brit and an American alongside long-time Belarusian company members, BFT hasn’t lost any of its urgency to denounce human rights violations at home, or its ability to craft scenes of startling beauty with the simplest of means.
Trash Cuisine is ostensibly about capital punishment, and its run at La MaMa (in a co-production with The Public Theater) is the occasion for a series of events about the death penalty: panels, talkbacks, performances by the NYC chapter of Theater of the Oppressed and a demonstration at City Hall to raise awareness of the continued use of capital punishment in Belarus (whose government also refuses to return the bodies of the executed to their families). The topic was carefully researched through discussions with Amnesty International, visits to prisons, and interviews with the condemned, their lawyers, families and even their executioners. As always, the company’s groundwork is serious, thorough and inspired by Kaliada and Khalezin’s moral outrage at injustice in the world.
So great is their indignation, in fact, that the single target of the death penalty cannot contain it. The show gives the lion’s share of its attention to political crimes – a topic in which BFT is well-versed – namely the travesties of justice in the cases of Liam Holden in Northern Ireland and Jorge Julio Lopez in Argentina in the 1970s (although the reasons for evoking these cases is unclear) and of Vladislav Kovalev, one of the supposed Minsk Subway Bombers, in Belarus in 2012. While all three men were wrongly executed, their unlawful imprisonment and mock trials are of most concern here.
Judging from the cases evoked, capital punishment, and its broader conceptual field of torture, seems like the second item on the show’s agenda, although the theme is introduced by a haunting opening sequence in which bodies double over, fall back, are pushed, punched, and waterboarded, strapped down, and tied up. Reinforced by BFT’s sly use of a gurney and an electric chair as ordinary props, and sourcing of Shakespeare for examples from literature, the death penalty is presented in all its raw cruelty in a video interview with the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. His matter-of-fact description of the execution of the convicted murderer Nicky Ingram becomes polite dinner-table conversation in Trash Cuisine (to Stafford Smith’s credit, as the attorney representing over a hundred detainees at Guantánamo, he’s justifiably jaded by the absurdities of the US penal system).
As a case against cruel and unusual or merely unjustified punishment of any kind, Trash Cuisine makes its point on the strength of both its research and its spirited search for physical forms in which to present that argument. The company excels at creating arresting images with the most ordinary of materials: the crude outlines of a human figure with glue and dirt, a naked body tied up neatly in a garbage bag, or even a giant mandala – for healing, at show’s end – drawn with chopped beets, carrots and salad. The ensemble is consistently riveting, whether performing an ironic stand-up comedy act, a creepy tête-à-tête between executioners or a haunting lamentation for the dead.
But in Trash Cuisine, some of the entrees on this carefully planned menu stick in the throat. “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette purportedly said, and while she isn’t referenced here, that kind of disdain for the suffering of the common man is the show’s running motif. However, the criticism is directed less at governments and more at all of us who go about our lives purposefully ignoring the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide or another 2,000 volts coursing through the body of a death row inmate. All of the food – and it’s usually the best (strawberries and cream with champagne, ortolan washed down with a snifter of Armagnac, enjoyed even more with the genteel background score of Arkadiy Yushin’s classical guitar), is a reminder of the self-interest and complacency of all of us privileged enough to live in democracies but not angry enough to fight for a more humane world.
As justified as the critique is, it’s harder to swallow when the show draws an amalgam between animal and human flesh, between the cruelty inflicted on a songbird and the murder of Tutsi children. Belarus Free Theater brings a graphic, vivid show and the full force of its convictions to bear on these essential subjects, that aren’t going away anytime soon. But as any marksman knows, precision is everything; with its sights more firmly on target, Trash Cuisine’s bullet would be all the more deadly.