Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘Viaticum: The Carnal Table’ — A Theatrical Feast

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday August 31, 2007

I’m dying! Bring in the gravediggers. Let the mourners come.” On a set out of a Gothic fairytale (designed by Kim A. Tolman)—a crypt with a crazy rose window above, a hovering eye and the Mona Lisa with her face half covered by a hand as she gazes out over the audience, a chessboard below as flooring—Saul Strange (David Usner, himself a skydiver) writhes on his seeming deathbed, rigged with parachute lines, in an upbeat final agony, attended by his family with painted faces (and occasionally a fantastic creature, a kind of celestial butoh drag queen, played by Kinji Hayashi). 

But on being wished “Happy Birthday, Grandpa!” by May Strange (Maikiko James), who presents him with his old combat medal and ribbon she’s discovered, and donning an O.D. jacket with epaulets and fringe over longjohns and (gold Arabian Nights slippers) taken from a coffin-shaped armoire, the old campaigner’s mournful talk turns to thoughts of restaurants and food. 

As Helen Pau’s creation, which she wrote and directed, shifts gears, and shifts again and again, to settle in (though not for long) at the “Carnal Table” that figures as the subtitle of Viaticum, an Incubator 16 production going into its final weekend at Live Oak Theatre. 

It’s not so much the dishes served at that fleshly board as the manner in which the feast unfolds that gives Viaticum its ultrachromatic, even atonal resonance. Monologue follows repartee after vignette, flowing right along like a branching stream into various landscapes, the connectives (as in a dream) quickly brushed over, or eliminated. It’s like a Mannerist painting, in which all kinds of action exists side-by-side in a variety of perspectives on the same canvas—nervewracking to take in all at once, but enjoyable in courses, once the spectator sits back and partakes in the procession of offerings, one by one, and lets it all correspond in its own way, mostly through wry (even skewed) humor. 

The deathbed, turned round, becomes the table of a Last Supper that easily outdoes any Da Vinci Code blather (and Leonardo’s name and work are invoked, under the shy Mona Lisa hovering above, just as Lewis Carroll seems to be in the wings, ready to step on the chessboard, or present in the sub-sub-title/description of “A TragicFarce in Ten Fits,” à la his “Hunting of the Snark”). 

The motifs jostle each other awkwardly, visually and verbally, as in a de Chirico painting, or a book by his prolific brother Savinio. In some ways less Surrealist (in the fullbore Parisian sense) than pre- and para-Surrealist, Viaticum plays off the mad Gothic sensibilities of, say, Poe or Comte de Lautreamont, dragooned as predecessors by Andre Breton’s gang—or the fascination with eccentric popular genres, like pirates, porn, secret agents and salacious nuns—all served up with a dollop of scatology and oodles of incest. 

Auditors straining for a plot may be hard pressed to respond, and some will find Viaticum irritating or “too conceptual” if they focus on the foreground, which evaporates constantly over the horizon or off the vanishing points. Better to take in the textures of offbeat stories spinning out, as the family of characters shifts shape to suit whatever gambit they’re on, all accompanied by cello (often in pizzicato), pennywhistle and toy piano by musical trouper Alex Kelly. 

The family (including Jacquie Duckworth and Steve Budd) moves through its various characterizations, anchored by the constants: parents/grandparents Saul and Jean Beatrice—Michaela Greeley, excellent in an almost deadpan performance, whether echoing the tail ends of others’ lines like a parrot as she serves as dresser and factotum in brown karate drag, or in basic black, hat and veil, squatting on an enormous white pawn, reeling out long lines of Strindbergian monologue. 

An unusual stage event, especially to end a slower summer than the past two. With another original out there like George Charbak’s Gilgamesh, also ending this weekend, it makes for a picaresque time of show-hopping in Berkeley, just like Helen Pau’s peripatetic script ... ready to praise the Prince of Darkness at any moment, while excusing oneself to run off to prayers! 



8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. $10-$15. 848-3338. 

Live Oak Theater. 1301 Shattuck Ave.