Devour the Moon
Live Bait Theater
By Carol Burbank
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's antiromantic futurist movement celebrated the technological age with a playful, confrontational abandon most powerfully expressed in futurist art. Those of us now moving through a world continually reshaped by technological advances might argue with Marinetti's unquestioning acceptance of industrialization as a grand evolutionary liberation. But everyone will be entertained by his futurist feast "aerodramatized" by S.L. Daniels in the musical Devour the Moon, the latest offering in Live Bait's Much Ado About Food Theater Festival.
It's based on Marinetti's 1932 publication The Futurist Cookbook, which extended his avant-garde movement from the page to the kitchen. Proposing fantastical edibles to replace the stultifying Italian staple pasta, he established the Holy Palate Restaurant, essentially a chic performance event that shocked and entertained patrons who came as much to gawk as to eat. Daniels and his team have done a good job of re-creating a Holy Palate banquet. The show is centered around a young girl who's first seduced and then repulsed by Marinetti's visionary fanaticism, a conventional narrative frame that goes against Marinetti's antitraditionalist ideas of literature and turns this extravagantly imagined evening into something of a morality play. But the re-created futurist event itself is full of wonderful surprises.
Daniels's book reshapes many of Marinetti's greatest concepts into active theater. The remarkable, cartoonishly wacky mini performances here vary widely, including interpretive dance, flatly satirical sitcom scenes, melodramatic laments and love songs, and scenes of verbal and physical acrobatics. "Aerocomposer" Eric Lane Barnes has written songs to Daniels's witty lyrics whose dark harmonies challenge and please the ear. "Aerovisionary" (director) Rob Chambers has choreographed clear slapstick, and his sharp pacing engenders a constant feeling of expectation.
Designer David Lee Csicsko and his crew have created witty, ridiculous, charming, almost appetizing mechanical food sculptures. They provide a sense of the fairy-tale splendor of the futurist imagination yet never skimp on the details that make it clear the sculptures are neither functional as machines nor very fresh. The set is reminiscent of a cheap Italian restaurant gone haywire, with angled walls, a live moon, mobile painted portraits with real human faces, and a de facto proscenium arch made of ladders, an enormous fork and spoon, and a huge red-checked tablecloth. The set's distortions are exactly right as the backdrop for Marinetti's egocentric, charismatic, iconoclastic ideas. Every detail is deceptively clownish, creating the sense--which the framing narrative contradicts--that futurism is not only fun, it's harmless.
Even the acting style, which is manically perky and cartoonish, on the surface supports Marinetti's genius even as it marginalizes his ideas. But this style has its surprising depths and subtleties. Marc Silvia plays Marinetti with a disarming abandon, speaking and moving rapidly but sitting with the stillness of a predator to watch and evaluate his staff, his guests, and his creations. Katrina Kropa as Lucia, the ingenue who embraces and then rejects futurism, is intelligently eager, making the awkward narrative frame more palatable and giving her character an alluring combination of innocence and willfulness.
The supporting cast portray satirical stereotypes from the soulful, tormented chef to the wealthy, voyeuristic countess, all of whom have wicked ideas that surface in occasional verbal and physical jabs. The actors' carefully drawn characterizations turn the evening's twisted events into a carnival of excess. Shouting, singing, overacting, overgesturing, overdoing everything and thereby mocking themselves, the performers make this fantasy reproduction feel more real than real.
Marinetti's dangerous insanity and narcissistic oppression become increasingly clear through this well-cultivated excess, but in the end it's all a little too fun. Too bad the creators didn't trust the persuasive power of excessive, entertaining futurist fragmentation when they wrote the script. By framing the piece with a traditional narrative, they softened the excitement and danger behind the clowning and let the audience off the hook.
Lucia becomes our interpreter and guide, and her safe passage is ours. Through Lucia we discover that Marinetti is more than visionary wit, that in fact he's a fascist whose art reflects a desire to uproot nontechnical culture and history. He wants Italians to literally "devour the moon" of romance and dreams and replace it with sunlight glinting on steel, an artistic ideology that paralleled Mussolini's restricting vision. When Marinetti threatens to cut Lucia up like a cake and serve her as a gruesome dessert, we're as shocked as she is and instantly reject futurism as she does, making an easy transition into the more humanitarian enjoyment of food and life and youth that she represents.
If only we'd been able to dive into the futurist feast with all its dangers, without the intervention of Lucia and the narrative. Marinetti's eccentric visions of a glorious future for food--which has turned out to mean TV dinners and Hostess Twinkies and McDonald's drive-through windows--would alone have been enough to alert us to the problems inherent in his fast-food mentality. His brutal treatment of his staff combined with his charisma is enough of a warning that his entertainments bear a price. We don't need the melodramatic threat to Lucia's life--in fact this storyteller's trick makes her a conventional ingenue-heroine. The potential tyranny of art and ideology doesn't need a story to be clear. This excellent production team should know that. Live Bait succeeds at playing with Marinetti's innovation and risk, but it stops short of adopting his own antiestablishment terms.
Giving up pasta wasn't the hardest thing Marinetti asked of his followers--it was giving up conventional narrative. In many ways, despite the dangers established in Devour the Moon, he was right: given innovative, confrontational thinking and visual effects, we don't need narrative to push us into understanding. Narrative theater was, and is, the kind of cultural pabulum Marinetti rebelled against. So it's ironic that the entertaining Devour the Moon is much more ordinary than it promises. In many ways it's a conventional musical about an unconventional man, a story well told and creatively staged that's ultimately seduced by the pleasures of narrative, offering romantic conventions as structural and thematic protection against the dangers of futurism and thereby marginalizing its own bold risks along with Marinetti's.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Marc Silva playing Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in "Devour the Moon" by Suzanne Plunkett.