I arrived at the Yale Cabaret to report on the dress rehearsal at 11:30 p.m. The action was supposed to commence at 12 a.m. I arrived early to tonight’s performance: “The Meal.” As I do with any show I see, I went in with a clean slate — the rupture of the real plot into my preconceptions sourced from the title always provides thought-provoking consideration. One is, in a sense, allowed to collaborate a prior understanding of the titular words with the understanding of the actuality of the play, generating a synthesis of comprehension usually overlooked. For example, take “The Meal.” What does one consider here? One usually thinks, beyond the obvious eating aspect, of intimacy. This isn’t called “The Feast,” which has animalistic or frenzied overtones. This isn’t called “The Communion” (as this play is most certainly not holy). This is “The Meal.” A meal shared with someone is usually cherished time. It invokes intimacy. It shares a history with piecemeal, which means to take steps at a time. Meals involve appreciation. This is not simply dinner, or lunch, or the ever-ghastly brunch, which either carry connotations of appointments, business or appeasing your significant other’s parents. We enter soft ground.
This brings me to my next point — this is a show concerning cannibalism. Moreover, it is a thoughtful play on cannibalism. It lives up to its endeavor to capture the homely fondness of the word “meal,” although with obvious sadistic and masochistic overtones. The largest hurdle in the enterprise is the initial repugnance of any attendee. The reality is that most people are not like yours truly and have not given cannibalism considerable thought, much less a mental mention, aside from any nightmares induced from “The Silence of the Lambs.” How does one make cannibalism relatable? How does one portray an act of cannibalism as fathomable for anyone not exaggeratedly deplorable?
First, they present to us what I think is the correct introduction. The first scene is a husband and wife. The wife has a cast on her hand. The husband appears to be in severe consternation. The wife has a finger missing. Her ring finger. Her marital finger. He mentions questioning. She mentions lawsuits. She mentions surprise, sickness, satisfaction. She also questions. She questions about urges and taste. They draw close. There is a kiss. Most of all, there is an understanding. This was the first act.
A problem that has plagued philosophers, Othello and lovers alike, is the problem of knowledge — knowledge of the Other. Who is this person that sleeps beside me every night? Oftentimes we list a sequence of facts — what they look like in the morning, his or her birthday, the way they laugh, what dream was had five days ago that particularly spooked them, what culture they come from. But this doesn’t quite assuage the tremors scratching the base of the brain.
What if they are so much more than that? So much less? What are they concealing from me?
The problem in philosophy usually comes to a head as this: In order to have complete understanding of a subject, you would have to occupy their complete perspective and place in the universe. In other words, you both would be obliterated. So for those who truly love others to the severest degree — something most people cannot, in fact, claim, regardless of how many flowers they’ve sent to their paramour — there is an intense worry that who you love is not actually that person but rather a mere collection of ideas and observations you’ve gleaned from that person. How do you have someone occupy you without destruction of either/or? How can one digest — ah, and here we have an attempt at the answer.
This is the divining character of the play: where I think it bridges the grittiness of cannibalism and the soft ground of its title. The play acknowledges that for those serious about love, especially in respect to Aristophanes and his eight-legged soul mates, there is a serious dilemma in the very act of loving. So what do they peculiarly suggest?
And dare I say, to an effect, it is convincing. What I applaud over the arrangement of the play is the introduction with the deranged husband and wife, which tugs on a natural and familiar relationship for all viewers. It is the apt coercion, so to speak. The play then gives several other scenarios relating the seductive elucidating powers of cannibalism (symbolically or otherwise), including in domination and in the fervent and desperate wish to save a withering indigenous culture. The use of an anthropological recording explaining examples of cannibalism in between acts was particularly scintillating and resourceful, both as a way to add credibility to the play’s possibilities and in adding a point of inquiry into the motives of cannibalism. This play is vulgar, and I say that as a complement to its truthfulness insofar that life is terribly vulgar. At times, however, this play does seem to be caught up in that mode of being vulgar and steps outside its very precarious plausibility (the second act in particular — the word cock doesn’t need to be uttered more than eight times in near succession — that’s just showing off!). All in all, this play does what good art should do: illumine the flesh and blood of a world, thereby positing festering questions. This play provokes many, many questions.