Are They Edible? Sugar, Spice & Snice
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
March 4, 2011
Before the lights go down on Are They Edible?, Part One: Sugar, Spice & Snice, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s “multi-sensory puppetry performance based on segments of Homer's Odyssey,” audience members are ushered into the theatre and presented with several simple and delicious appetizers, all tastefully laid out on large, round, silver platters. Company members serve wine and grape juice, the audience travels from table to table, sampling fruit wedges and cheese cubes, mingling happily as they munch on celery sticks dipped in hummus, or strawberries smothered in yogurt and granola. It is a feast, a banquet in which everyone is made to feel welcome and encouraged to indulge.
Nothing changes when the lights go down and three women on stilts enter the theatre manipulating a large puppet resembling an eagle, making it soar above the crowd. Though we are asked to silence our cell phones, we are not asked to be seated. Ever the gracious hosts, the production accommodates the audience, inviting them to follow the action from area to area as they present selected chapters of Homer’s epic poem.
The use of food throughout the play was enjoyable on several levels. On the surface, the food was delicious—although I could have done without the shrimp/fish ice cubes in the ouzo shots—and provided the performers wonderful, perishable props to play with. I jealously watched as the actors poured bottles of wine down ramps and crushed strawberries in their fists as the juices ran down their arms. Treating the food with such gleeful recklessness adds joy to the festivities, highlighting the poem’s sensuality.
On an academic level, the play makes good sport on the importance of food and celebration in both the poem and Greek culture: the wine the audience drinks is made into a river on which a small puppet of Odysseus sails; crisp lettuce leaves, plump squash, and hollowed-out pineapples filled with strawberries are put into playful use to convey the kidnapping of Helen and the sacking of Troy; and the previously mentioned ouzo shrimp/fish ice cubes make the most of an unfamiliar sense: when was the last time a theatre company engaged your taste buds to evoke a sense of place?
And on the purely theatrical level, the food’s placement conditions the space and defines the play’s physical and intellectual parameters. “Join us,” it says. “Eat, drink, make yourself comfortable. We have a story to tell you.” Storytellers have been reciting this mantra for thousands of years—since before Homer began singing his stories at banquet halls, dinner tables, city centers, and cliff sides throughout ancient Greece—and the makers of Are They Edible? deserve credit for their absorption and elucidation of this great tradition.
Having taken such pains to present the story, the company falters a bit in the telling. Are They Edible? presents five episodes from Homer’s epic: Odysseus washed ashore on the island of Scherie; his capture by the Cyclops Polyphemus (or it might have been his encounter with the witch-goddess, Circe); his descent into the underworld; the temptation of the Sirens; and his return home to Ithaca. Each section is distinguished by its use of different media—plastic boards, magic markers, food, wine, and backlights create a kind of boardroom presentation/shadow play to recreate the Cyclops/Circe episode; an enormous (seriously, it’s huge) red velvet cake with cocoa and cream cheese frosting is joyfully cut with using piano wire for Odysseus’s homecoming—and the joy with which the performers engage with the material is obvious. And there is no end to director Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s—credited as the show’s “Ringmaster”— intelligence and skill in conveying the dynamics of each episode.
But Oi-Suk Yew and company’s emphasis on theatrical elements come at the expense of the story’s humanity. The show lacks the connective tissue to illustrate the simple emotion propelling the action: the obstacles and the effects those impediments have on the hero’s overarching desire, after a long and harrowing war, to go home. There are hints of this in the long, slow silent journey of Odysseus, an elegant wooden puppet expertly manipulated by three puppeteers, but not enough is made of his journey from episode to episode to carry the emotional and thematic demands of the production.
At fifty minutes, though, there is more than enough to engage an audience’s interest. And as the title suggests, Are They Edible?, Part One: Sugar, Spice and Snice is a work in progress, with more episodes and explorations to come. If you are familiar with the tale, it will be fun to witness the inventive ways in which the company chooses to tell the story. If you are less familiar, fear not: it doesn’t take much to enjoy the banquet.