Live Arts Festival: Food Court

By Wendy Rosenfield

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and for Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, making its second Live Arts Festival appearance (the first was 2009’s Small Metal Objects), in the land of Food Court, the simple capacity for speech determines ruler and subject. Performed by disabled actors--some with intellectual disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, others with both physical and intellectual challenges--to a haunting score improvised each night by a live musical trio called The Necks, Food Court raises troubling questions about human nature and exploitation.

This production requires patience from its audience, plus a willingness to visit the soul’s darkest corners and remain there for about an hour, but even then it’s rough going. Much of the action occurs behind a scrim that serves to suffuse the setting with a murky haze, and supplies a surface on which to project each line of dialogue; the actors’ speech is difficult to understand unaided. The Necks’ skittery bass-plucking maintains an undercurrent of anxiety, and the cruelty in Bruce Gladwin’s script is basic and streamlined: two obese women wearing aerobic leotards encounter another woman in a food court whose cognitive and physical functions are even more compromised than their own. They bully her, call her fat and stupid, drag her into the woods, force her to endure vicious humiliations and abuses. And even among these three there’s a hierarchy.

Brutal like a Diane Arbus photo or David Lynch film, Food Court has a similar objective: to shine light on the grimy underside of our smoother surfaces. After all, it begins in a mall. In a final scene, director/devisor/designer Gladwin equates the victim with The Tempest’s Caliban, and this, too, adds another level of inquiry. How much are we--and the performers--being manipulated? Food Court’s questions are indeed tough, but for all the right reasons.

Sept. 20-22, 8 p.m. Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St.