By Rebecca J. Ritzel
It’s just after 10 p.m. at Georgetown University and theater rehearsal is finally over. Before she releases her actors and crew into the steamy Washington, D.C. night, director Natsu Onoda Power has one last admonishment:
“Please carry the knives up. Not down,” she says, swinging her arms wildly above her head. “I don’t want you to hurt the audience.”
“Really?” questions sophomore Nehemiah Markos, one of the knife carriers. “I thought they would appreciate the thrill.”
Just what play will the audience be seeing? A bloody Jacobean drama? A marshal arts reimagining of Macbeth? No, the potentially dangerous play in question is the world premiere stage adaptation of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s 2006 manifesto about where food comes from, and why consumers should want to know. Only, “stage” adaptation is a bit of a stretch. The three-act show takes place in the theater, then in hallways and classrooms throughout the building, and then, finally, in a black-box space where 60 people sit at gingham-clad picnic tables, watch the final 45 minutes, and enjoy fresh corn soup made by a local farm-to-table restaurant.
Pollan, who has seen the script but cannot make it to the July 26 premiere, said in an e-mail message that he endorses Georgetown’s effort. “It seems like an imaginative, funny, and smart reworking of the material,” he wrote. “It’s not at all faithful, I might add, but I’m happy to see what other people more creative than me can do with the story.”
Onoda Power is nothing if not creative. The petite Japanese American is a visiting professor of theater, and now directing her sixth show at Georgetown. She also works frequently at Studio Theatre, one of Washington D.C.’s most respected venues. Originally, Omnivore was scheduled to open last fall, during the school year, but directing duties got shuffled around, and the premiere was relegated to midsummer.
“The show went through many different iterations,” Onoda Power said. “Like, I wanted a chicken farm on the lawn, with boom boxes. Then there was a time that I was thinking of doing it on a school bus, and the bus would be painted like a cow. At a stoplight, people in corn costumes were going to bus-jack the bus. … So, there were many different ideas, and we settled on a feasible adventure.”
The feasible adventure begins in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre, with the cast of 16 actors explaining to the audience that this will not be a traditional theatrical experience. Patrons will be given a map and instructed to roam the performing arts building “foraging for theater.”
The nine site-specific installations include the “Meal of Fortune,” a studio reconfigured like a giant pinball machine. Ricochet through and discover just how easy it is to rack up calories. The eerily pink-painted “Behind the Seas: Salmon” will make you wish any sockeye you eat swam free in Alaska, not a salmon farm. And then, tucked away in a small hallway, hung low with HVAC piping, is the “Planet of the Corn.”
As anyone who has read Omnivore or seen Food, Inc., the 2009 documentary loosely based on the book, knows, Pollan is very concerned about our nation’s reliance on corn, and he’s not talking about ethanol, or gnawing on ears at a summer picnic.
“Corn is in so many products,” junior performer Emma Clark said. “Things that you just wouldn’t think.”
Clark and her fellow creators of Planet Corn have the hallway looking like a mad scientist’s hut in the middle of a corn stalk jungle. There’s a curtain of stalks, a scary-looking chem lab for genetically modifying kernels, and, at the end, a mock grocery store shelf of made-from-corn sundries including a Saxby’s Coffee Cup, cereal, and soda bottles.
Decorating the hallway marked Clark’s first time designing a show instead of just acting in it.
Clark said that Onoda Power “really pushes us to create. The end result is that you take a lot more pride in the production when you’ve done the work yourself.”
That’s an important point of the production, both pedagogically and theatrically.
“I wanted to divide the labor differently from traditional theatrical labor, and I wanted it to be more like a farm,” the director said. “We have a group of people who act, but also make props, and installations and costumes. There were no auditions. I just said anyone who wants to be in it can be in it.”
Although she’s not a fan of the term, Onoda Power practices what drama types refer to as devised theater, a nontraditional process in which the director, playwright, designers, and actors build a show from scratch rather than starting with a script. Prominent practitioners include Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, San Francisco’s SITI Company and New York’s Theatre of the Emerging American Moment.
As practiced on college campuses, devised theater isn’t just avant-garde, it’s efficient. When Omnivore got bumped to July, the university proposed having the students “take” it as a summer class. None of the students wanted to pay, but they planned their summers around voluntarily putting on a show. Most are working in Washington by day, acting and creating by night.
The scripted third act is written by Onoda Power for specific students. For example, recent graduate Justine Underhill has circus training, so the director has her playing a pig at slaughter. She hangs by her knees from a trapeze, grunting obliviously like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, while Markos slices her sweater off with a knife. Markos, the knife-wielder, is convincing as Angelo Garro, the burly Sicilian who, in the book, takes Pollan hunting and shows him how to butcher a boar.
In the play, Markos throws Underhill over his shoulder and casually hangs her from the trapeze. The scene takes place right smack in the center of three tables set up in the Devine Studio Theatre, a black-box space that easily accommodates a trapeze. Audience members sit at the tables and surround the actors, staring up at Underhill as she swings.
What if another theater company wanted to put on Omnivore, and didn’t have a resident trapeze artist? Or an appropriate black-box space? There probably won’t be another company. That’s the beauty and the burden of producing devised theater. This Omnivore is most likely a one-time-only show. Onoda Power could get nostalgic before the play even opens. She doesn’t.
“I get bored easily,” she said. “I feel like my particular set of skills are suited for making something that uses the existing skills, chemistry, and personalities of the cast that we have. I make something with them, so it can’t be translated to another group. There are many shows I’ve done in the past that I’m attached to, but when I think about remounting them, I realize, ‘No, I just can’t do it.’”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma premieres Tuesday, July 26, and runs through July 31 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. Tickets are $7 to $18. For more information visit, http://performingarts.georgetown.edu, or call (202) 687-ARTS.
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Washington who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and other publications. She also teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland.