THEATER REVIEW: The Taster at Shakespeare & Company
By Joan Ackermann
Directed by Tina Packer
(Founders’ Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., $15-$85)
A Shakespeare & Company production of a play in two acts
Cast in alphabetical order:
Robert Biggs as Esteban and Bernard
Maureen O’Flynn as Queen Mariana and Claudia
Tom O’Keefe as King Gregorio and Henry
Rocco Sisto as Octavio Pillars and Syd
Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck
An enigmatic man who embraces his life yet risks death every day is at the center of Joan Ackermann’s enchanting, mysterious time-shifting play The Taster, in its world-premiere production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. Director Tina Packer has given this new play a graceful, gentle quality, as the action shifts back and forth between the court of a medieval Basque king and the present day life of a couple in the United States.
Rocco Sisto gives a charismatic, compelling performance as Octavio Pilars, the king’s official food taster. Trays of elaborate food are brought to his lodgings several times a day, and he reacts with a careful ritual each time: he dons the proper robe, the right cap, upends his hourglass and, with an eyedropper, tests samples of the dishes with a chemical concoction. Only then does he actually take a bite.
When he is not tasting the king’s dinners, Octavio is genial and friendly; he is concerned for the welfare of Esteban (a charming comic turn by Robert Biggs), one of the servants who brings the trays, and persuades him to have a painful tooth extracted. Octavio is a man of science, of curiosity; rows of books line the shelves in his lodging. The king, outwardly full of energy and bombast, comes to Octavio to confess his worries about producing a male heir; the queen is equally worried, and she, too, comes to Octavio for help.
In the twenty-first century, Maureen O’Flynn, in a marvelously engaging performance, is Claudia, an opera singer who is afraid her marriage is failing; Tom O’Keefe is Henry, her husband, who has lost his job and his direction in life. In desperation, he has started translating an ancient Basque tale—the story of Octavio, the king’s taster. O’Keefe is brilliant as the drifting Henry, searching for a way back to his life and his marriage. O’Keefe also plays King Gregorio, with gusto and kingly arrogance: his performance as the two very different men is insightful and nuanced. O’Flynn plays the flamboyant Queen Mariana as well as Claudia, with notable success; and yes, she does sing, a charming Basque lullaby.
Claudia has a lovely voice but can’t connect with her partner; Henry has lost his voice and is searching for a new one in his translation. The king and the queen have lost their love for each other, and hope the taster will help them recover it. The characters are searching, and Octavio, the taster, is the compass, the one who is grounded, who is wise.
Robert Biggs also plays Bernard, a translator who inspires Henry in his work on the Basque manuscript; and Sisto also portrays Syd, a friend who tries to help Henry in his journey back to himself.
Yoshi Tanokura's set is very fine; the background scrim of a medieval manuscript works beautifully, and the simple furniture pieces set the place and time quite well. Octavio's ladder to the arched window is magical. The costumes are equally good; Govane Lohbauer has achieved a richness in fabric and color that really takes the audience to a royal court. The lighting and sound design, by Christopher Thielking and Scott Killian, respectively, are successfull as well. The design team has produced a cohesive setting for the play.
Rocco Sisto the soul of this production, and he holds the center with a gently luminous performance infused with grace and intelligence. The writing is lovely, the story is a fascinating alchemical mix of then and now, and Packer has guided her marvelous cast to a satisfying production of this new play.
Music/sound design, Scott Killian; Set design, Yoshi Tanokura; Costume design, Govane Lohbauer; Lighting design, Christopher Thielking
(Through September 4; running time is two hours with one fifteen-minute intermission)
Lesley Ann Beck is the managing editor of Berkshire Living magazine. She reviews the arts for www.berkshireliving.com.