Huntington Premieres Vengeance Is the Lord’s
Drama demands all the fixings when it comes to food props
When a script calls for eating, stage actors and directors have their tricks: feigned chewing that fools no one, substituting meat with something easier to masticate. But in the Huntington Theatre Company’s current production, Bob Glaudini’s Vengeance Is the Lord’s, the eating is real, prolonged, and messy, with lines delivered through full mouths.
“We thought we were setting the Guinness world record” for stage meals, says Glaudini, whose play Jack Goes Boating is now a feature film directed by and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Glaudini’s drama unfolds over a succession of holiday dinners, with actors speaking in between actual bites.
It’s a props master’s nightmare.
Back in August, Huntington props master Kris Holmes was handed a props list for the play that read like a daunting, exceedingly premature marketing list for a month of Thanksgiving dinners. When she got over the shock, she went shopping. Holmes needed months to prepare for the play’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter repasts. The turkey, ham, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, salad, mincemeat pie, and much more were destined to be replenished and restyled night after night for the world premiere of Vengeance.
Under the direction of Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois (Prelude to a Kiss, Becky Shaw), the play runs through December 12 at the BU Theatre. In the new drama, spiced with sharp jokes and peppered with obscenities, a modern American family (the parents are divorced) gathers at the holiday table, where a mother’s plea for mercy clashes with a father’s need for retribution when their daughter’s murderer comes up for parole. Intended for mature audiences, the play serves up moral dilemmas alongside the mashed potatoes.
Vengeance takes place over a period of months, spanning from Thanksgiving to Easter. The once-married Howarths come together for these meals with their three grown children. “The family strives to make rituals of these holidays, which long ago “lost all meaning,” for them, says Glaudini. “It still is an attempt for people to make contact, however misguided.”
“They’re not really nice people,” he says. “The play began as sort of an image of the room, making another person sit down and listen, and then the characters kind of took over…and they were hungry.” He describes them, particularly patriarch Mathew (Larry Pine), as possessing outsized appetites, not just for food but for money and for a level of success defying their blue collar roots. “They devour life,” says Glaudini, adding that the play is punctuated by darkly comic moments.
Huntington props master Kris Holmes uses sliced bread in the cavity of a fake turkey.
A few weeks before the opening, Holmes was in her cavernous basement workshop tinkering with a $160 hollowed-out display turkey while assistant props master Justin Seward was attempting to fashion ham slices out of pink Play-Doh. The $60 display ham was less convincing than the turkey, so they painted it. The rest of the meal was to be edible. Even with shortcuts such as mixes and canned and frozen foods, Seward must arrive at least two hours before the curtain to prepare turkey slices, eggnog, cranberry sauce, vegetables, rolls, butter, gravy, squash, mincemeat pie, green salad, stuffing, and sweet potatoes. The food needs to be basic and bland. “We’ll open a lot of cans,” says Holmes. The last step: hauling the feast off to the set to see how it all looks, and behaves, under the stage lights. The director’s request for real butter is a concern, says Holmes: “We’ll need to see what happens under an hour of stage lights—it could get messy.”
Kris Holmes, Huntington Theatre Company props master, creates partly edible feasts for the world premiere of Vengeance Is the Lord’s.
Stage food “has to look the same in every performance,” says Holmes, who did props for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre set when Russell Baker was host and works summers as WGBH’s Antiques Road Show props master. She experiments with how to get real-looking slices from a plastic turkey—perhaps the audience would be fooled by bread being sliced from a loaf stuffed into the display bird. “The actor wanted to be able to pull a cooked turkey leg off the fake turkey,” she says, “but we couldn’t do it.”
“This is extreme,” says Seward of the current production’s requirements. “Most shows don’t have food at all.” Holmes recalls that the actor playing the father in last year’s Huntington production of Stick Fly ate specially ordered real pigs’ feet on stage. And the props team has in the past created fake sliceable chickens. But there are challenges beyond getting the stuff to be edible, consistent, and realistic under the stage lights. In Vengeance, one of the actors is a vegan.
After 19 years on the job, Holmes enjoys challenges—with perhaps some initial groaning. This play may be remarkable for its edible props, but she recalls others that were equally challenging: one demanded a convincing shower of fake pigeon droppings, another called for a scene where a character dumps the contents of a chamber pot on another character.
“We used slime mix, borax, and food coloring,” Holmes says. No only did the, er, “contents” have to look real, but they couldn’t stain the victim’s costume. Washable concoctions also hurled onstage with the audience being none the wiser were “pasta” with red sauce (Holmes used confetti), as well as ersatz blood and vomit. That onstage tumbler of scotch in Vengeance is actually brewed tea, and the Bloody Mary is a no-brainer—virgin V-8. One actor asked for a “whiskey” made of soy sauce and water. Champagne is more difficult, and Vengeance requires lots of it. Holmes and Deshazo popped varieties of nonalcoholic champagne but found them too flat for stage purposes. Holmes is as enamored of the hunt as she is of honing and crafting props. One of her favorite jobs was procuring bottles to fill the shelves of the Budapest perfume shop in the musical She Loves Me, staged by the Huntington in 2008.
If Vengeance makes audiences dyspeptic, Glaudini also hopes that “it sets up a kind of dialogue—that audiences will discuss these matters of how far do you go to achieve some sort of success” and how a man can lose his moral compass.
The play, which DuBois calls a “darkly comic domestic drama,” also features Lee Tergeson of the TV series Oz, Karl Baker Olson, Roberta Wallach (daughter of stage legends Eli Wallach and Ann Jackson), Katie Kreisler, and Trevor Long.
Vengeance Is the Lord’s runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through Sunday, December 12. Tickets range from $20 to $89 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Calderwood Pavilion box office, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) a regular price ticket. Members of the BU community are eligible for a special subscription rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.