The Fruit, Durham
My hands are slick as I gaze down on the literally visceral carnage before me. An exposed bone, arctic white, juts from the stubborn clay-colored knot of muscle and sinew resisting my dissection. The rest of the roast pork shoulder is strewn across the porcelain platter I shattered when my cleaver missed its mark. But the wicked sickle of a ceramic shard turns out to be just what I need to complete the evisceration.
I’d say chef Jacob Boehm has given me a very naked lunch, in the words of William Burroughs, except that it’s the dinner hour at The Fruit, where we’re drawing near the end of the third act of Macbeth.
Boehm has made his name as an impresario of immersive culinary events. He launched his Underground series of innovative pop-up concept dinners three years ago through his company, Snap Pea Catering, with some unique ground rules. When announcing an Underground event to his thousands of email followers, the unusual locations, which have ranged from the Old Bynum Bridge above the Haw River to the butterfly house at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, remain a mystery until thirty-six hours before the event. The menu, inspired by the offbeat venues, isn’t revealed until guests arrive. The Banquet added another layer of mysterypatrons didn’t know what play they’d see, only that they were in for “an epic, immersive theatrical dining experience.”
“People really have this hunger for very unique experiences,” Boehm says. “Most dining experiences don’t really try to surprise and delight on as deep a level as I try to.” The numbers seem to back him up. “They generally sell out within ninety seconds,” he says.
An itch to push the boundaries of culinary experiences got Boehm thinking about theaterhow to fully integrate dining and drinking in the world of the show. Director Akiva Fox, one of the founders of the new Bulldog Ensemble Theatre, suggested a foodie version of Macbeth.
Which brings us back to the carnage before me in the third act, the second banquet scene Boehm and Fox crafted for Shakespeare’s dark drama, which stands in stark contrast to the first. There, Duncan (Lenore Field) had arrived for a night of hospitality at the castle of the newly minted Thane of Cawdor. On our tables, piquant pickled onions and sherry vinegar added sharpness to a delicate ring of melon and fruit, crowned with wispy flower shoots and greens, dotted with whipped feta cheese. Caramelized eggplant shortly followed. Both, served on sumptuous golden platters with gold flatware, were complemented by an astringent 2016 Cotes de Gascogne Blanc.
But things have changed by the time we re-enter Macbeth’s castle, where the ghost of murdered Banquo, once Macbeth’s boon companion, takes his chair at the feast, unhinging the murderous monarch. Now the dining tables are covered in butcher’s paper. Stainless steel meat cleavers are sunk into uncarved limbs of pork. The unseeing eyes of crispy, blood-red shrimp (heads on) and smoked Spanish mackerel stare up from our tables alongside sumptuous roasted oyster mushrooms and sweet corn.
But there are no plates. There is no silverware anywhere. In this tactile course, if you eat meat, you must lay your hands on the murdered for your meal. Your fingers get greasy when you’re the one pulling the pulled pork, filleting the fish. Linen napkins reduce effluvia but don’t remove it; that requires a visit to servants who provide soap and pour water from pitchers over your handsanother touch in sync with Shakespeare’s script.
“It’s food as character, food as theme,” Fox says. There was a delicious frisson as Durham’s tastefully dressed foodie adventurers, who’d paid $110 to $150 apiece, crossed the border from essen, the German term for human food consumption, to something more akin to fressen, feeding as animals. As Shakespeare’s monarch regressed, so did we, tearing hunks from loaves of wood-fired bread, chastely plucking a finger or two of whole okra and then drinking in the darkness of a 2016 Tempranillo from the Uclés region of central Spain.
Under Fox’s direction, Phillip Bernard Smith is a Macbeth with insidious charm, while Rebecca Bossen McHugh maintains an icy half-smile, half-rictus as his wife. Trevor Johnson lends integrity as Ross, and stage veteran Lenore Field plays Duncan as a monarch touched too easily by false praise.
But the real star is the concept. Our region has largely avoided the mediocrity of dinner theater. There have occasionally been efforts, like Women’s Theatre Festival’s Little Women and Sonorous Road’s The Gift of the Magi, in which afternoon tea or holiday treats are incorporated into a show. But we’ve never seen anything like this, in which food so fully infiltrates a production it even comments critically upon the action. By the time we finish that second banquet scene, our complicit hands are metaphorically as dirty as Macbeth’s.
Food for thoughtand convincing proof of concept for Boehm’s next theatrical exploit. In a post-performance follow-up, he admits he has another play in mind. He won’t say what it is.