If you want to be sure that the entertainment you choose to see on a Friday evening will be the same one you saw three weeks earlier on a Tuesday, go to the movies. Live theater is supposed to change from night to night, even if some shows try to recreate the same exact experience at every performance; the Les Misérables that's on Broadway right now is probably not so different from the one that opened 10 years ago, but other shows do vary from night to night in subtle ways, and more significantly when there are changes in the cast. Which brings us to Eat the Runt at Altered Stages, a show in which the cast changes constantly.
Prior to each performance of this Mefisto Theatre Company production, the actors for each role are chosen by the members of the audience, who have no idea of which performer might be appropriate for which part--and that's exactly the point. Author Avery Crozier intended the play to be unrestrained by issues of gender, race, or age. With a clever and inventive script by Crozier and stunning direction by Peter Hawkins, Eat the Runt is not at all the grungy little downtown play with attitude that its title suggests, but a dazzling new work that captures the very essence of theater.
No two performances of this show will likely ever be the same, because there are more than 2,000 possible casting variations. The pool of seven actors (one actor plays two roles) consists of white and black men and women. The tone and thrust of each scene can change dramatically from night to night, depending upon the deployment of the performers. In the same way that audiences attend different productions of Hamlet (or this year, Macbeth) to experience new casts and new interpretations of the work, so might they return to Eat the Runt. (The producers wisely encourage this by offering a discount for your next admission).
What does not change from night to night is the script. The plot is built around a series of job interviews at a major urban museum. Merritt, an ambitious candidate for the job of grants manager, has been flown in to meet key museum staff members; office politics, sexual intrigue, racial and religious issues all come into play (literally). The night we saw the show, the role of Merritt was filled by a black actor named LaKeith Hoskin, who dominated the proceedings by virtue of his strong, highly theatrical performance. Had the same role been played by a white actor, the nature of the comedy in one interview scene in particular would have been entirely different; had the actor playing the interviewer been black and not white, it would have been different in yet another way.
The dynamics of Eat the Runt are always in flux. Royce, the director of development, is having an affair with Pinky, the museum director. (On the night we saw the show, these roles were played by two women.) Royce, however, is also attracted to Merritt. Among the other characters is a perpetually cranky human resources coordinator, an egotistical curator, a buttoned up museum trustee, and an employee who has already been passed over for the job for which Merritt is applying. As the actors take on varying role assignments at each performance, Eat the Runt has more spins than a top.
Of course, the quality of each performance is unusually dependent upon the skill of the ensemble cast--and there is no better example of "ensemble" than this group of actors. We were especially impressed by the natural performance of Weil Richmond, but most of the actors did highly effective work. That's quite amazing when you consider that all seven of these thespians must know every part cold, and must be prepared to assume any character at any time.
The spontaneous casting of each performance of Eat the Runt is, according to the Mefisto Theatre Company, a theatrical first; Hawkins suggested this daring approach to the playwright, who fully embraced it. It works because it isn't a stunt. Rather, it's a theatrical manifiestation of what the play is all about. In its sharp satire, Eat the Runt shows how our personal prejudices shape our view of events. The play also reminds us what live theater is all about.
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