On Stage, Interactive ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’ Offers Food and Thought

BY Kathleen McCleery  July 29, 2011 at 1:23 PM EDT

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Adrian Iglesias, Betsy Helmer and Justin McCarthy perform an original song about food consumption. Courtesy of Georgetown University.

 
Guess who’s coming to dinner? You are, but you’re going to have to work for your supper.

In the first-ever stage adaptation of Michael Pollan’s 2006 nonfiction bestseller about American food production, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the audience isn’t allowed to stay in their seats for long.

No sooner have you turned off your cellphone when a pair of actors appear in the aisles with guns fashioned from two-by-fours. They’re in your face shouting “Boo!”, and then, suddenly herding you on stage. You’ve become wild pigs and they are the hunters foraging for food (you). Then the audience members become the hunters, foraging for information. This guided role-playing is the start of a two-hour experiential journey exploring food, politics and culture.

The play, now showing at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, was conceived, written and directed by professor Natsu Onoda Power and performed by college students and recent graduates.

Act II offers a menu of interactive options, and like a restaurant menu, you can only sample so many in the 45 minutes allotted. In the “Meal of Fortune,” you can play a pinball game. If you end up with the “poverty” coin, you’re relegated to fast food options since it’s all you can afford. (The prize is diabetes.)

Some portions of Pollan’s treatise get short shrift. “The Life of the Steer,” some 100 pages in the book, translates to mere minutes and mostly grunts and other noises, all part of Act II.

Other ideas grow to longer scenes. “The Support Group for Troubled Foods” is a therapy session. Theatergoers get into the act, posing as a mango who confesses to being a kleptomaniac, stealing water; a coffee bean whose “boyfriend is fair trade and I’m not”; and a grape tomato who hit “rock bottom” after the salmonella outbreak of 2011. The real actors know the punch lines; the paying guests get cheat sheets on clipboards.

It’s a paean to Pollan, to be sure. There are some barbs for organic food producers, among others, but no critique of the author or the work on which the play is based.

It all ends with a feast, for the tastebuds and the brain. They serve a creamy corn soup made with lobster broth served with crusty bread and olive oil, all in real cups, real spoons, real glass flutes for the jugs of water (no Styrofoam or plasticware here).

Finally, the audience is left to digest the meal, and the theater experience, with a few words taken from the Pollan’s last few pages:

“Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.”

It’s an adventure likely taken by the already converted. But for anyone, it offers worthy food for thought.

Sold out performances of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” continue at Georgetown University through the weekend. Standing room only tickets may be available.