Given the amount of ink spilled on our other basic desires—sex, love, wealth and power—the number of plays that address hunger is surprisingly small. This is not true of any other art form; there have been books about eating as long as there have been books (see Genesis) and food, in its still-running form, was the subject of the earliest human paintings. A good fifth of Carmina Burana is devoted to eating and drinking, not to mention The Nutcracker. And yet, save for Little Shop of Horrors, onstage eating remains a rarity.
Eugenia Woods seeks to make up for her fellow writers' indifference to hunger in a big way in Famished, a new drama presented by Portland Playhouse as part of the Fertile Ground festival. A mash-up of recorded interviews, composed scenes and striking, silent movement, the performance encompasses every imaginable food neurosis: anorexia and stress bingeing; the irrational pickiness of children and the moralistic pickiness of adults; the conflation of feeding and love, hunger and lust.
The narrative portion of the play follows a family through three generations' evolving food hang-ups, exploring the ways emotions and food are intertwined, for better or worse. Presiding over the story is Our Lady of Insatiable Desire, a dancer (Jessica Wallenfels) in a doll-like white dress adorned with an outline of the alimentary system in bright LEDs, who performs the characters' unspoken hungers. Not all of the story makes sense—the heavyset husband's affair with a taco-truck cook is nonsensical and verges on overt racism—but much of it rings true. Sharonlee McLean gives a poignant performance as the butter-loving matron, who expresses her love for her family through carbs but cannot share the food she makes them out of fear of her own heft, and Michael Cline hogs the laughs as an Escoffier-quoting teenage foodie. But most delightful of all is Isaac Lamb's scathing rebuttal of his Pollan-apostle girlfriend's objections to his eating a hamburger: "How do you generate so much talk," he asks, "on so little food?"
SEE IT: Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 205-0715, portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Through Feb. 5. $12-$23.