Plenty to feast on in Oral Fixations

Anyone who’s ever fought to get a spoonful of mashed vegetables into a toddler’s mouth knows food can set the battleground for an obstinate clash of wills.

Anyone who’s ever fought to get a spoonful of mashed vegetables into a toddler’s mouth knows food can set the battleground for an obstinate clash of wills.

It’s funny how the most personal of human behaviors — eating — can rapidly escalate, beyond all sense or reason, into something scary and political.

Many potential food-related conflicts — from a mother bringing a homemade lasagna to her newlywed son’s house to a teenage girl drastically cutting calories to gain control of her life — were spotlighted in the locally-written play Oral Fixations, by Red Deer playwrights Blaine Newton and Leslie Greentree,

The engaging Ignition Theatre production that’s running this week at the Scott Block theatre explored, through humourous, touching and chilling scenes how life is rife with power plays — and how they often start unassumingly at the dinner table.

The action at Friday’s performance began with light-hearted banter from various characters — including a food label-reader who was appalled by the unnatural shape of fish sticks. “Fish isn’t square. Bathroom tiles are square,” said the woman, played by Lisa Spencer-Cook.

Characters of various ages went on to recall their guilty food pleasures (pop tarts) and nightmares (liver, “the zombie of foods”), before examining TV cooking shows as food porn, ethnic food-aversions as racism, and the things our loved ones eat that make us crazy.

The latter was one of the funniest scenes. It involved an animated Ryan Mattila miming a guy who couldn’t get enough sugar to start his day, as his girlfriend watched him inhale his syrupy breakfast with pure disgust.

The strength of the play, directed by Matt Grue, is its sparkling, witty dialogue. There was plenty of it to savour — as well as strong performances from a cast of five (that also included Paul Boultbee, Killdeen Delorme and Erin Odell), and an interesting abstract set by Patrick Beagan.

The problem — at least to us non-foodies in the audience — was the play’s two-hour length (it could be tightened up by half an hour by getting rid of some descriptive dialogue). Many characters made fairly obvious observations about food’s flavour, smell, texture and appearance without scratching the surface to reveal deeper truths about what these preferences mean or say about us as individuals, or as a society. (Only in the over-fed, under-nourished West could anyone envision a play like Oral Fixations in the first place.)

Viewers did get emotionally drawn into the production’s absorbing second act, which brought poignant scenes of loneliness and need for comfort food, nourishment as nostalgia, and the painful and powerful memories certain foods can evoke.

We felt for characters who often substituted food for love, or connected certain foods to happier times in their lives when they felt loved.

But it might have bumped up the drama and insight to have mentioned food banks and the people who feel shame and deprivation at having to use them.

Nourishment is a basic human requirement, yet there are kids in our cities who get their only sustenance from their school’s free breakfast program. What kind of wary relationship does this create with food as they grow up?

On the lighter side, there are also the people jumping on the latest trends, be it raw foods, macrobiotic, gluten-free, lactose-free, nut-free, or animal-free products.

While this play would have gained from having its scope expanded, there was still plenty to feast on in Oral Fixations — and audience members are sure to leave the theatre with some food for thought.

The play continues to Oct. 18. Tickets are available from www.ignitiontheatre.ca.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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