Feast of My Heart
Jason Phelps' show of solo performances about compassion are proof that one person can make a difference
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 19, 2014
Feast of my HeartSalvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through Dec. 20
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
What can one person do?
The question is often posed, arising from a place of powerlessness, a feeling of being swept away in a tide of ingrained, intractable problems born of inequality, prejudice, fear. Against all that, the actions of a single individual cannot possibly make a difference, can they?
Perhaps, but then you witness one man looking you in the eyes and saying "thank you" with an honesty you feel springing from the deepest chamber of his heart. You watch as one man encounters a man living on the streets and makes a sudden connection with him, listening to him speak about his life and offering to help him learn to read. You see one man crawl inside the life of another – a man who has left this world but who, when he was in it, did things strange and freakish, and yet the living man inhabits the dead one's life without squeamishness or judgment, so as to help others pierce his alien exterior and see his humanity. You observe these small gestures of compassion, all made by one person, and find them kindling a tiny flame inside you, a flame of hope for what an individual can achieve.
That flicker of optimism may be the greatest gift of Feast of My Heart, but this solo show conceived and performed by Jason Phelps comes with many others: new scripts by writers whose work has an important place in Austin but isn't seen enough on our stages (Lisa D'Amour, Erik Ehn, Ruth Margraff); texts by past and present hometown heroes whose theatrical offerings are ever welcome (Zell Miller III, C. Denby Swanson, Daniel Alexander Jones, Kirk Lynn, Josh Meyer & Matt Hislope); surprising combinations of directors and playwrights (Christi Moore and Margraff, Shawn Sides and Jones, Vicky Boone and Lynn); lighting by Natalie George that pins Phelps in dramatic illumination and casts moody shadows across his form and onto walls; and, far from least, the sight of Phelps himself, doing the kind of stage work that he loves so dearly: work that vibrates inside his body, that hums in his blood, that challenges him to find fresh ways to speak and move. Doing such work was how he established himself in the Nineties, and it inspired one electrifying performance after another. For those who experienced that work, seeing him taking such risks onstage again is a prize of dear value.
And the risks here are considerable. For Feast, Phelps commissioned eight pieces from artists working in wildly varied forms and styles, and the results push him in very different directions during the show: from the word jazz of Jones and Miller to deep, character-based monologues by Swanson and Margraff to movement accompanying Ehn's dense text and driving the Rubber Rep piece. But Phelps never misses a step. He charges the verse with urgent, personal rhythms that makes it all his own. When he goes into a character, he dives deep, as with the man who would be a cat in Swanson's eerie, gripping "The Theory of Substitution"; Phelps peels away the layers of this mystery wrapped in human skin to reveal his heart. Every move Phelps makes, whether while dancing, telling a story, or untying a scarf from his neck and wrapping it around an audience member's, informs the drama he's unfolding. And when he stands before us as himself, as in D'Amour's "No Direction, Only Action," he's as open as a raised window, letting us see all the way in. What we see is his compassion – the theme of Feast of My Heart, though it isn't developed in a way that holds these eight works together. No, Phelps is the glue binding this show, and when you wonder what one person can do, his efforts here are proof one person can do a lot.