Do a quick Google search and you’ll find people – a lot of them – commiserating over a shared fear of toilets – the cleanliness, or more accurately, uncleanliness of a toilet; using toilets in public places; and the most dreaded fear of all, clogging a toilet. With that in mind, it’s almost surprising that more horror stories don’t emanate from the bathroom. Luckily, playwright Cory Finley, the brain behind The Feast, now playing in repertory with Empanada Loca at Obsidian Theater, chose the commode as the unlikely focal point of his dark comedy/horror play, and we’re all the luckier for it.
And yes, I’m just as surprised writing that as you are reading it.
In The Feast, we meet a young couple, Matt and Anna. To listen to Matt, our protagonist, everything’s going great. He’s an artist who’s painting regularly, and because he’s got a little money saved up, he can work “from a place of passion.” He says he’s in the best shape of his life, and he sleeps like a baby. He’s in a committed relationship with his consultant girlfriend, Anna. They share an apartment and yes, the sex is incredible to say the least. But there is one teeny-tiny problem: An unidentified groaning, screaming coming from inside the toilet that only Matt can hear.
The Feast is the definition of that adage about how things are not always as they appear, with Finley using the on-the-surface-happy Matt, and the creatures he encounters living in the depths of his toilet, to tell what’s ultimately a delicate character study, one that’s a little weird and quirky, with more humor than you might expect, and clear roots back to its Gothic ancestry. Its subject matter is heavy – mental illness, secrecy, shame and their effects on a person and their interpersonal relationships – and most of that weight falls on the ready shoulders of Nolan LeGault.
LeGault’s Matt is a man in turmoil. He is confused, overwhelmed, unsure, scared, defensive, paranoid, and oh-so vulnerable. He’s such a sympathetic figure, who underneath all the growing mental anguish seems like a genuinely good dude. He’s earnest, especially with Cortney Hafner’s Anna, so seeing LeGault and Hafner go from playful rapport to stilted exchange only makes you feel worse for both characters.
In one specific way, Hafner has a tougher challenge in front of her. What Matt is going through is not Anna’s fault, though her actions and the subsequent fallout hasten the inevitable. Meaning, it would be easy to take Anna as some kind of bad guy. Instead, Hafner plays Anna’s frustrations as a type of understandable burnout in terms of their relationship. She is almost resigned, a bit closed off, like someone at the end of her proverbial rope but who (because of love, guilt, or both) can’t just walk away.
The third member of the cast is Tommy Stewart, who’s tasked with playing a handful of different characters, including Matt and Anna’s loud-voiced plumber, perpetually hiking up his blue jeans; Matt’s detached therapist, dispassionately taking notes much to Matt’s chagrin; and one of Anna’s cocaine-seeking co-workers, who has one of the shows more painful conversations with our protagonist. He plays each character with ease, which is even more impressive because within at least three of them he’s playing a bit of an omniscient character-within-the-character. He also makes a quite unexpected appearance of which no more will be said as to avoid spoilers. But it is wonderfully unsettling.
Kelsey McMillen and Tom Stell co-directed the production, and they also shared responsibility for set and lighting design. Finley’s script is tight, with the play clocking in around 70 or so minutes, and together, McMillen and Stell keep it moving, allowing many of the scenes to flow almost seamlessly into the next while still giving scenes room to breathe and space for tension to build. Here, the little multi-purpose apartment set helps, though its design doesn’t quite hint at the “beautiful apartment” comment it garners from Stewart’s plumber character. If it intentionally doesn’t match the dialogue, the effect of the design is more reminiscent of something like Repulsion, a film thematically related to The Feast, which used its apartment setting to mirror its main character’s deteriorating mental state. But intentional or not, things like the clutter from Matt’s art supplies and the frayed edges of the couch silently (and effectively) speak to the state of Matt and Anna’s relationship and Matt’s mental state.
The fluorescent, lime green light that shines from the toilet is the most memorable lighting choice made by McMillen and Stell, particularly when the lights go down and it’s the only thing illuminating Matt as he leans over the bowl. But the moody blue lights used, and the lightning effects during the storm are just as important to the production, as is the lack of light when the storm knocks out the power in Matt and Anna’s apartment. Turns out, even in a public space, at a theater show, as an adult, the dark is still scary.
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Stell handled sound design which, like all the design elements and acting choices, really came together during the show’s thunderstorm climax. Stell’s base for the entire production is a jazzy, easy listening score that gets broken up by all kinds of ominous, threatening noises, from drips to clanging metal and much more. There were, however, some interruptions during the background traffic of one scene and the storm of another that were noticeable and a bit distracting.
In the program, the costumes are credited to “Everyone,” and “Everyone” did a good job. Each character is costumed in a bit of shorthand (Hafner’s business-minded character dons a blazer, while each of Stewart’s roles is distinctly and appropriately dressed), but LeGault’s costumes are especially compelling. This includes the white silk robe Matt is introduced in to the comfy, paint-splattered sweats he dons for the rest of the show which, not for nothing, is the ensemble of someone not allowed to keep their shoelaces.
It would be easy to say that The Feast is appropriately macabre programming just in time for Halloween, because it is. But the truth is, there’s no bad time for the kind of horror The Feast is actually mining.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, and October 11 and 17; 7 p.m. Saturday and October 25; and 5 p.m. Sunday at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through October 26. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $15 to $25.