The Lenox, Massachusetts, production draws focus upon unhappy husband-wife collaborations during two very different time periods. In contemporary New York City, Henry (Tom O'Keefe), a former Merrill Lynch investment banker, is down on himself, his spouse and life. Henry suspects that his wife Claudia (Maureen O'Flynn) is involved with another man. She is by profession an opera singer.
During the second act, Sisto appears as a nutrition expert, Syd, who advises Henry about eating habits. Henry, who studied languages at Harvard before turning to money-making, is now translating a play set during the beginning portion of the sixteenth century in Basque country. That particular project has his attention. Otherwise, however, he is in despair.
The audience is also introduced to another testy and problematic situation; this portion of the plot occurs during the first portion of the sixteenth century. Much of the complex and engaging play revolves around a Taster, Octavio Pillars (Sisto), who samples food before King Gregorio (O'Keefe) might eat it. Queen Mariana (O'Flynn) is married to the King, but he is unable to facilitate pregnancy for her; so, she turns, in this regard, to the Taster. Sisto as the pivotal Taster is amiable, warm and concerned. He wants the King to be satisfied with each morsel of food.
Ackermann's play is one filled with depth, voice, music and sensuality. Neither of the couples is thrilled with marriage. The playwright, whose excellent works include Off the Map, The Batting Cage and Ice Glen, stretches herself and takes ambitious risks with the current fulfilling piece.
The author has noted that she wrote the play with both Sisto and O'Flynn in mind. Sisto was with Shakespeare & Company during its early days. Since then, he has won Obie awards in New York, taken roles in films such as Donnie Brasco and Carlito's Way, and appeared in television episodes including "The Sopranos." Sisto furnishes a skilled and specific performance in The Taster and his is a sublime presence. O'Flynn, an acclaimed opera singer who has appeared with Metropolitan Opera and many others, is afforded the opportunity to sing. Her voice is luxuriant and rich; one wishes she had further opportunity ... her acting, too, is commendable. Tom O'Keefe does well with both of his roles.
Ackermann takes a creative leap with The Taster, and the intellectually acute theater artist Tina Packer directs the performance with knowledge and appreciation for the grace which permeates the play. During one moment, Octavio, asking his King to hold two stones, instructs him in the art of tasting. This is precious.
The first act, especially, requires theatergoers to fill in blanks in the narrative flow. Not each and every moment is connected to the next. It is difficult to integrate and synthesize all during a single observance. I found myself wishing for a script to reference some sequences. The other alternative would be to watch a second performance of the play.
Yoshi Tanokura's set is distinctive as it transports those watching to varying locales. A bed is stationed toward the rear and a ladder reaches upward toward a window. The designer also provides tables. The scenic design is both intelligent and functional.
The Taster opened just a couple of weeks ago. Ackermann has written in the roles of Estaban and Bernard (both quite capably played by Robert Biggs) to introduce and provide explication. Are these inclusions an absolute necessity?
The Taster continues at Founders' Theatre as part of Shakespeare & Company's summer season in Lenox, Massachusetts, through September 4th. For ticket information, call (413) 637-3353 or visit Shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol