It is grand to eat dinner on the couch while watching TV. It is still more grand to eat dinner in a banquet space while watching a play.
That is a fundamental truth undergirding Feast, the new show from Minneapolis-based Walking Shadow Theatre Company. It’s the tale of Grendel’s mother, a character in Beowulf, who assembles a gaggle of humans to witness her painful testimony. Feast is also a meal served by the Black Forest Inn, the German restaurant on Nicollet Avenue that hosts the show. The dinner component doesn’t work as well as the show, but Feast is exactly the kind of experiment that makes it feel worthwhile to abandon that faithful couch and HBO Max subscription for at least an evening.
Written by Iowan Megan Gogerty, Feast asks: “What if Grendel wasn’t actually a bad guy?” and, “What was his mother experiencing throughout the events of Beowulf?” The legendary monster’s anonymous “sea hag” mom, played by Isabel Nelson, relitigates the thousand-year-old epic poem, which has inspired millions of nerds, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.
According to Grendel’s mother, her son was a thoughtful fellow. He observed Anglo-Saxon soldiers destroying the earth and popped over to their mead hall for some civil discourse, and the soldiers forced him to fight. It’s just that the poem’s final draft “omitted [her] son’s speeches.”
I mean… Beowulf is pretty clear that the noisy soldiers annoyed Grendel and triggered an epic murder spree. “Greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men/ From their resting places and rushed from his lair/ Flushed up and inflamed from the raid/ Blundering back with the butchered corpses,” as the Seamus Heaney translation goes. And beside the fact that a monster-centric rendition of Beowulf already exists, reframing the narrative through a secondary character’s perspective doesn’t exactly feel fresh at a time when every third story is this sort of “twist on a familiar tale.” (Iconic examples include Wicked and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)
But it’s all in the execution, and Gogerty, Nelson, director Allison Vincent, and crew have produced a hilarious one-person show out of this revisionary premise. As Grendel’s mother and dinner party host, Nelson see-saws between unnatural politeness and mighty maternal rage, engaging and amusing the audience. Nelson’s physical comedy is reason enough to buy a ticket; fans of Bill Hader’s morbid SNL characters will love her “sometimes it’s appropriate to deface a body” charades. Especially in a one-person show, it can be tough for a performer to completely conjure a character, not just recite a script. But Nelson’s crowd work generates energy and channels it back into her character.
Between installments of her Beowulf retelling, Grendel’s mother monologues on the United States’ present day, and this is where Gogerty’s hand seems heaviest. “You’d be a better people if you built statues of the mothers,” she says, instead of the founding fathers. She criticizes wealth-hoarding and political strongmen, and offers collective action strategies. It’s odd that an immortal being would be so well-versed on contemporary U.S. sociopolitics, but Gogerty wrote this script in those frantic days when Trump was in office. Subtlety wasn’t exactly the vibe.
Dinner isn’t subtle, either. Black Forest Inn offers three entree options (ribs, chicken paprikash, and vegetarian pot pie). First, a course of sweet carrot-ginger soup promises good things to come. But the ribs and their accompanying sauerkraut sear the palate with salt, rescued only by a side of cooked potato wedges. The pot pie is more of a slab pie, its gravy overseasoned. Although dinner was served just 10 or 15 minutes before showtime on opening night, almost everyone quit eating within a few minutes of Nelson’s entrance—perhaps out of politeness, perhaps from lack of interest.
Thankfully, Walking Shadow offers a couple rows of show-only seating, which is priced at $15-$25 instead of the full experience’s $55-$65. Diners and show-only ticket holders alike are encouraged to grab a cocktail or soda at the main restaurant’s bar. And hey, it’s Eat Street. If you arrive early enough, you can get a better meal down the block at Little Tijuana, Pimento, or Lu’s.
Feast runs at Black Forest Inn through April 1. Proof of COVID vaccination is required, and masking is encouraged when not eating or drinking.