A well-used prop in “Confection,” an immersive production at the Folger Theatre, is the type of silver covered dish you’d find at a formal banquet. Sometimes, when performers lift the top off, there’s something wonderful underneath. And sometimes, there’s something that will rattle you.
That’s how “Confection” works, though: It’s trick or treat, have or have not, sweet or sour. The show, commissioned for Folger, is an exploration of the nobility’s opulent banquets during the Age of Exploration and the era of Shakespeare — and the human price of those feasts.
The show comes from Third Rail Projects, a New York-based company that focuses on site-specific and movement-oriented works. Written and directed by the company’s artistic director, Zach Morris, it tracks nicely with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibition, “Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures,” featuring historic cookbooks and artifacts.
At the nexus of it all is sugar. The lovely tiered cakes and outlandish feasts that grew popular as more ingredients from the colonies became available were possible only through the enslavement of African people, the show makes clear. “Confection” doesn’t follow a linear plot, and the characters are never named. But a series of vignettes — some are dance or movement-based only — build up to a message about wealth and humanity. In one, a character asks: “When does a body become a thing that’s fit to be consumed?”
“Confection” is set in the Folger’s reading room, and it’s a treat just to see a space that’s usually off-limits to the public. The audience is led through the reading room and its connected spaces, including a narrow card-catalogue room, and split into smaller groups, so you may not see the same scenes as someone in a different group. You might be touched by the performers: on the arms, or even on the face. You’ll be close enough that as you’re sitting at a table, the silk of their swishy Shakespearean-era formalwear might graze your cheek. They’ll make eye contact in a way that is, depending on your comfort level, engaging or unnerving.
And they will challenge you. Because even though “Confection” is about history, it’s also about the present day: The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, and food, increasingly, has become a symbol of that. (Except now, sugary foods are cheap, and it’s the wealthy who can afford to forgo them.)
Many of the vignettes start out as opulent frivolity, and turn on a dime to something more insidious. And when our participation is demanded — as in scenes where we’re part of a banquet with the performers, or invited to play a game that’s really an exercise in game theory — it’s in service of a lesson about fairness, equality and chance. Some scenes are silent, some are performed in Spanish and some are cleverly set to a chamber music cover of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” Though the actors take on different characters in many of the vignettes, Alberto Denis has a recurring appearance as a flamboyant nobleman — a character he plays for laughs, which makes the dark twist in his scene all the more unsettling.
Yet another way that audience members participate in “Confection” is with their taste buds. Dessert, prepared by Lila Miller of Lupin Baking Co., is part of the experience. Your ability to taste the various desserts will depend on how well you and your fellow audience members have absorbed the show’s bittersweet thesis.
“Royalty and nobility made the act of eating an art,” one of the characters explains. “Confection” shows us that the art of eating has always been an act.
Confection, by Third Rail Projects. Conceived and written by Zach Morris, and directed and choreographed by Morris with Thom Pearson and Jennine Willett. Music and sound design by Sean Hagerty. With Elizabeth Carena, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Justin Lynch and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. About one hour. Through March 24 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. $60-$100. 202-544-7077. folger.edu.
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