The Taster by Joan Ackermann. Directed by Tina Packer.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The English language is missing a few letters of me."
Maureen O'Flynn and Tom O'Keefe; photo: Kevin Sprague
Henry, a broker without work, is suffering from a number of psychological complexes, the least of which is a personal identity crisis that leaves him gasping for enough fragments of many alphabets to use to reconstruct himself. His wife, Claudia, may be having an affair, but even she isnít able to conceive it, at least not in polite conversation with her husband. Their nutritionist friend Syd wants to recommend some herbs and some foods to Henry, but finds it difficult to cope with the depressed manís recent discovery, the pomegranate. Bernard, who taught Henry, wants to see a Basque play well translated and brought to a conclusion, something Henry seems unlikely to accomplish.
Thatís not the main story. Thatís the secondary play, the framework situation, the counterfeit that defines the real.
In the 1500s Octavio Pillars, a royal taster, befriends both the king, Gregorio, and his damaged Queen, Mariana, who is condemned to death for not conceiving an heir. When she suddenly manages to do so things change radically for all three people and when the child is born the definition of poison takes on new shadings. Thatís the main story.
Or is it?
Playwright Joan Ackermann weaves these tales together so masterfully that these two stories intersect in both casual and distinctly urgent ways making the entire play into a unified, well-knit piece that cannot bear a separation of one tale from the other. Actually there are three stories, for Bernardís short story is an essential drift on its own.
Five actors play ten roles and the switch back and forth from one legendary figure to another, more mythical one - present day or not - is a wonder to behold. Of course, regulars at Shakespeare and Company will have seen smoother transitions than some of these by now and so there will be no sense of wonder here for them. They have come to expect such acting marvels. For the rest of the audience, expect a hush, a chill in the air and a flash as people reimburse the audienceís investment with a payment of interest unlike any other.
Robert Biggs; photo: Kevin Sprague
Tina Packer has directed this play with a clear love for the writing, the characters and the language of the play. There is the true beauty. In spite of Ackermannís clear gift for plot and character development it is the language and how she uses it, that makes this play into a miracle. She presents her show with an impeccable English, some gratitude for Euskara, the ancient Basque tongue, and a dangerous level of physical interplay that has, over the recent seasons, characterized this company as a team of players who will stop at nothing for the laugh, for the tear, for the amazement felt by an audience. This show is no exception. Packer literally packs into the play enough movement to keep a self-winding watch very, very happy. She has brought her actors to an oddly healthy place in which they can comfortably shed their own skin as they take on the multi-layers of performance interpretation for which this company is famous.
Shining "bright" in a role that must have been written just for her, Maureen OíFlynn adds her lovely voice to two Basque musical numbers while providing us with a seductive, brutally elusive Queen Marianna and a non-seductive contemporary equivalent named Claudia. She is expert in defining each of her roles. They are vitally different and yet once in a while when they need to dissolve, we can see OíFlynn falling into that widening gulf. She also sings the songs with gorgeous tone, a legato sensibility that lets things flow and a high respect for the odd-sounding words.
Tom OíKeefe plays both her husbands extremely well. The manic manner of Henry comes through from his first entrance and it grows constantly as he begins to fit himself back into his own world. The "love the common man" sensibility of the King is heftily portrayed by OíKeefe and his heartier moments are delightful alterations in his otherwise dark personality.
This show is all about personality and Robert Biggs, in both his gigs, has much of it. Bernard is an almost tongue-in-cheek professor. He shows his intelligent face in this role and he takes his three brief scenes in stride leaving an impression of erudite understanding. However, as Estaban he manages to go much further with fewer lines to say. This Kingís man is a human being from his eyebrow to his toes and with gesture, facial expression and sounds he engenders compassion.
Zachary Kroneís two roles are called Guillaume and he handles them both very well.
Rocco Sisto; photo: Kevin Sprague
It is the titular role, though, played by Rocco Sisto, that truly takes top honors here. The Taster, Octavio Pillars, is a man who has taken the job of assuming the death of kings to new heights with his scientific approach who makes us wary, makes us laugh, makes us weep with a florid flurry of emotions. Sisto is brilliant in this role. He has taken every ounce of manhood and dispensed with physical strengths to give us psychological ones. He plays out thoughts rather than actions. He is generally always in motion and yet he is the calm, unstirred center of things.
Is this Henryís play or Octavioís play? The only thing that matters is that the two of them have met though more than five centuries lie between them. A grand physical production holds them close together.
Designed by Yoshi Tanokura, with superb costumes by Govane Lohbauer, rhythmic lighting designed by Christopher Thielking and erotic music by Scott Killian the trappings of this play seemingly roll out the dough of this pastry of a play whose filling is humanity at its most complex.
Onward, Clothilde. Oh, go see the play - I cannot tell you everything.
The Taster plays in repertory through September 4 in the Foundersí Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-637-3353.