‘A Moveable Feast’

Riley Shanahan. Photo by John Ulman

Ah, Paris. If La Bohéme set up the idea that dying of tuberculosis in a garret is romantic if you’re an artist, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast knocked it down. The memoir of his days as a struggling young writer in the French capital, as Europe licked its wounds after the first world war, elevates the starving artist to its Platonic ideal—single-minded pursuit of artistic greatness, nourished by books instead of, you know, food.

The adaptation of Feast now running at Nordo’s Culinarium is the first ever collaboration between Book-It Repertory Theatre and Café Nordo, and it combines two very specific artistic styles into one briskly paced, peppy whole.

Adaptor Judd Parkin and director Jane Jones have pared Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir down to a two-plus-hour story, with room for Nordo’s usual multi-course meal to be served within.

Hemingway (Riley Shanahan, infectiously wistful) and his first wife, Hadley (a wide-eyed Hariette Dunn-Feliz) are living happily hand-to-mouth in the city of lights, mixing with the coterie of fellow literary expatriates who gravitated to Paris in the 1920s. Gertrude Stein (Susanna Burney) holds court in the home she shares with Alice B. Toklas (Jen Taylor); Ezra Pound (Raymond Chapman), and of course F. Scott (Andre Nelson) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Jen Taylor) are on the scene. 

A Moveable Feast is a self-portrait of the author as a young man, “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” It’s being in love with Hadley, writing feverishly in cafes (he wrote The Sun Also Rises during these years), reading everything, meeting everyone, betting on horses, ignoring the pangs in his stomach. As a memoir, its intoxicating, and Hemingway’s words are a pleasure:

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

This adaptation is a charming, featherweight look at a remarkable time and place, and it amplifies both Book-It and Nordo’s best and worst theatrical quirks. The enduring exuberance of the forms used by both troupes shines through: Nordo’s love of culinary communion, Book-It’s veneration of literature. But the companies also reinforce one another’s tendency to be presentational to the point of cartoonish (charismatic Nordo regular Opal Peachey plays Stein’s maid Lisette, whose main direction seemed to be “more French!”). Transmuting memoir, even one as dialogue-heavy as Feast, into a stage work is tricky, and hearing the language broken apart and volleyed between characters mugging to the audience dulls the original authorial voice that made it so alluring.

Adding some allure back is the excellent house band led by Annastasia Workmann, who also composed original music for the show. (The moments when the play suddenly becomes a musical are rare enough to be startling, but not unwelcome or tonally inappropriate). The addition of multi-instrumentalist and smoky vocalist Sari Breznau to the Nordo band was more than welcome.

Erin Brindley, Nordo’s executive chef, planned a menu using recipes from Alice B. Toklas, with varying degrees of success. An exquisitely rich mouthful of a mushroom tart and a light yet warming “bay-forward” vichyssoise was marvelous, but poached salmon on a bed of crumbled egg and cucumber slices doesn’t seem like a trend worth reviving. A Benedictine-banana custard at the end had great flavor, but was completely liquid. (A minor gripe: If you advertise a signature cocktail in the ticket price, don’t serve it in a shot glass. Hemingway wouldn’t approve.)

A Moveable Feast runs through April 2. The run is already sold out, though word is they’re trying to add more performances.