Noma Dumezweni in “Feast”

"Feast" boasts everything from dance and a company of 13 performing texts by five authors from four continents to appearances by a recalcitrant real live hen.

“Feast” boasts everything from dance and a company of 13 performing texts by five authors from four continents to appearances by a recalcitrant real live hen. But then you’d expect diversity in a celebration of Yoruba beliefs and culture spanning 300 years across the Nigerian diaspora, up to present-day scenarios set in the U.S. and U.K. Rufus Norris’ visually resplendent, multi-disciplinary production is big on superbly controlled spectacle. What it lacks is sustained storytelling and tension.

From the piercingly lit, choreographically arresting opening sequence in which the traditional Yoruba trickster character entices the audience and introduces everyone to the notion of remaining true to oneself, it’s clear that Norris’ representation of ideas is going to be arrestingly theatrical in the widest possible sense.

Spinning off from the initial presentation of three linked female characters, the women cross continents and centuries with remarkable ease to embody the history of slavery, liberation, race and personal politics. Ironically, however, the isolated playlets that articulate all those concerns are the least satisfying elements of the evening.

Too many of these vignettes play out like faintly pious sketches whose point-making punchlines are too obvious to resonate beyond their initial expression. The best of them feature the quietly authoritative presence of Noma Dumezweni, whose gracious command dominates every scene she’s in, especially her highly practical, wry Cuban prostitute in one of the few scenes that comes with the element of surprise.

But if most of the content and arguments are too isolated to cohere or land effectively, the spirit of the piece — and this is, above all, an evening devoted to dramatizing the nature of the Yoruba spirit — is given bravura treatment.

Thanks in no small part to Lysander Ashton’s state-of-the-art, highly suggestive video projections — there’s nothing so facile as literal location-setting here — sequences melt into one another. Beneath Paule Constable’s lighting, Ashton evokes atmosphere, mood and even climate with a visual representation of rain. As his images cascade over Katrina Lindsay’s abstract set, the actors don her often spectacular costumes to play fresh characters and to combat the diffuse nature of the narrative.

The show’s fluidity is equally attributable to the intensely evocative live music that supports and links scenes, and supplies fuel for George Cespedas’ choreography for the astoundingly lithe cast.

Theater history is littered with well-intended but patronizing shows about “other” cultures. Although, thankfully, “Feast” avoids that cultural/political tourism trap, there’s no getting away from the fact that the production is more satisfying than the well-intentioned text.

Feast

Young Vic, London; 431 seats; £30 $47 top

Production

A World Stages London presentation of a Young Vic and Royal Court production of a play with music in one act by Yunior Garcia Aguilera, Rotimi Babatune, Marcus Barbosa, Tanya Barfield and Gbolahan Obiesesan. Directed by Rufus Norris. Choreography, George Cespedes. Musical direction, Michael Henry.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Katrina Lindsay; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Paul Arditti; video, Lysander Ashton for 59 Prods.; arrangements, Akingbola and Henry; production stage manager, Joni Carter. Opened, Feb. 1, 2013. Reviewed Feb. 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Yemaya - Noma Dumezweni
Oshun Naana - Agyei-Ampadu
Oya - Michelle Assante
Elegba - Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Papa Legba - Louis Mahoney
White Man - Daniel Cerqueira
With: Sola Akingbola, Laurence Corns, Yanet Fuentes Torres, Michael Henry, Coral Messam, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Alexander Varona.

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