Sex and Foie Gras
A conversation with playwright Kate Benson and director Lee Sunday Evans on their new play, [PORTO], at The Bushwick Starr.
Kate Benson is a confident carnivore.
Once, when she was visiting some friends who own a farm in upstate New York, she observed a cluster of chickens running around outside a homemade chicken coop, pecking and squawking and happily shitting as they pleased. The chickens were not only free but exultant, too – they were being cared for, pampered, and, she thought, loved. When she noticed the orange plastic traffic cone hanging upside-down beside the coop, with its top cut off in order to widen a small opening, she didn’t think it wildly unnatural. She still didn’t when she learned that, when the chickens were plump and grown, they would be plucked from their flock, turned upside-down, and fed head-first into the cone to have their heads snipped off.
“It’s brilliant, right?” she asked over brunch on a recent Friday morning. She was sitting in a gently hipster bar near The Bushwick Starr, where her new play, [PORTO], premieres this week (in this production, she also plays the role of Narrator). Beside her was Lee Sunday Evans, who will direct. The duo won an Obie award for their last collaboration, A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.
“It struck me that I was having this kind of terrible guilt-pleasure relationship with food,” Benson continued, gesturing over a breakfast burrito. She doesn’t believe that there’s really any such thing as ethical food, “just more ethical and less ethical.” To live a completely rational life, where each decision is measured and the desire for a good chicken wing is forever repressed, she thinks, would be a tragedy. But to completely ignore ethical realities would be equally problematic. The question, then, is when to promote ethical behavior and when to “lustily engage with the pleasure side and let [the ethics side] be what it is.”
In [PORTO], Benson takes that struggle and connects it to sex and feminism. The action of the play takes place at an unnamed bar in a rapidly-gentrifying urban neighborhood (the fact that audiences will walk through Bushwick to get to the theater isn’t irrelevant). The play’s eponymous character, Porto, is a “zaftig woman” and bar regular who knows that the tastiest thing on the menu is the foie gras sausage. When Dry Sac, a fellow regular, tries to tell Hennepin, a bar newcomer, that foie gras is made from geese that are force-fed through a hose, Porto bristles: “Just let the man eat his sausage.”
“The thing that I’m interested in about the food in the play,” says Evans, “is that it’s a really deep way we all can connect with about the primal desire for taste and pleasure and eating.” That middle word, “pleasure,” is key – it’s one of many instances in the duo discussing the play where the language surrounding food and sex overlap.
Benson and Evans describe the plot as a gender-flipped Judd Apatow comedy (with a heavy helping of downtown weirdness, naturally). Eventually, Porto becomes involved in a casual sexual relationship, which we experience from her perspective. “We get to hear an awful lot about her circumstances and her concerns,” says Benson. “And much, much less about his.” Benson says she grew tired of “wild, eccentric, messy” male characters in romantic comedies being paired with decidedly less colorful female ones.
Evans adds, “It’s an investigation of how to tell the story of what it feels like to be a woman – the complexities that go along with even the simplest decisions because of gender.” In the play, these decisions include how to present oneself, how to navigate relationships, and how to eat. “It’s hard to talk about the layers of complexity that you inherit being a woman in society,” Evans continues. “I think women resist talking about that because there’s a fear that it makes you appear to be a victim or that it makes you appear to be feeling badly about yourself.”
To explore that theme effectively, Evans explains, required “making the familiar unfamiliar.” One revelation she describes during the process of staging the play was to hide the onstage bar from audiences as they take their seats in the theater. The bar, she says, is a familiar space to virtually anyone coming to see the play, “so if you walk in and you sit at your seat for ten minutes and you look at this thing that’s familiar, then it’s very hard for the play to work.” Instead, the play tries to “get you to pay attention to something that you know in a different way.” It may seem like a small choice, but it’s one that speaks directly to the production’s goal of sparking new conversations about common situations.
At a certain point, the conversation turns to veal. Benson has never touched the stuff, though she doesn’t quite know how her anti-veal stance started. “I think I was just the right age when I found out how veal is produced, so I decided I’d never eat it. It seemed like a righteous position.” Evans nods. “We live in contemporary society where we know so much about these very entrenched, difficult systems of the way that food is produced and the economics behind food production and at the same time, we still have an appetite and an un-intellectual relationship to the task of eating.” She proposes that there’s a correlation there, in that psychological disconnect, between food and relationships.
When the breakfast burrito is a distant memory, Benson and Evans get up to go to rehearsal. It’s “food test” day, and Evans needs to prepare the stage. They don’t want to say what exactly the food test entails, but Benson hints that in the world of [PORTO], “steak will be represented by a spool of string.” How this might play out is anyone’s guess.
After they leave, a bearded waiter wordlessly whisks away a plate with the yolky remnants of poached egg. Dish in hand, he disappears back into the depths of the kitchen, off to crack some other chicken’s egg.
[PORTO] runs at The Bushwick Starr theater January 11 – February 4, Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets at thebushwickstarr.org