Dinner and theater are like butter and bread–you can have one without the other, but it’s just not going to be as good. September is Fringe Arts month for Philly, and just as in previous years I have found myself in a flurry of Emails to coordinate an elaborate playgoing schedule, followed by a second flurry concerning two vital questions: Where will we meet? and, just as importantly, when will we eat? Is there a good restaurant nearby, and should we meet up there? Before or after? Someplace nice, because it’s a special night out, or someplace cheap, because we’ve already paid for tickets? These are not details that can be left to chance; no one should be expected to understand rapidfire wordplay while ravenous or feel moved by a monologue on an empty stomach.
And whether I arrive hungry or satisfied, I am particularly disposed to pay attention to onstage scenes of eating. (To be fair, I am always on the lookout for foodplay, not just in the near neighborhood of dinner.) I’ve gotten to see some really excellent shows this year, and in nearly all of them there was a noteworthy moment of food-related stage business. I started keeping notes, and it’s fascinating how much of a play’s larger themes can be revealed in even the most minor or fleeting scene of eating.
As an abstract, frequently nonverbal production that takes place in a series of galleries bedecked with priceless paintings, there weren’t a lot of food references possible in this performance. (If there had been, I would have died–as a former art museum VSA, I already felt nervous about the moving and dancing crowds around unprotected wall art. Food in the galleries is not allowed.) But one of the final scenes opened with a pajama’d young man bringing a cup of tea to his romantic partner, who is lying in bed in the same pose as Ariadne in the painting above her. She accepts it gratefully, and he tells her it’s a kind of green tea, genmaicha. Her smile drops and she says, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? Green tea makes me sick to my stomach.” “Hahaaaa, I know,” he laughs, unconvincingly. “That’s why it’s ginger tea.”
Primed as we are to expect relationship strife in this production, this moment is a little nerve-wracking for the audience. Is it green tea or ginger tea? Is he trying to comfort her or poison her? She seems to drink the tea with no ill effects, but that moment of dissonance colors the rest of the scene–and, in one sense, the rest of the play. Even during the scenes that depict the idyllic stages of romantic love, we were bracing ourselves for the switch-up, wondering when those moments of comfort and connection would start to sicken.
In some ways this was the most stripped-down production of an already stripped-down musical that I’ve ever seen–just one phenomenal pianist, two performers with great voices, and some chairs–but it took place in the parlor-style upstairs room of London Grill, which was nicely appointed with a full and tended bar. As Jamie and Kathy rant about their domestic and professional lives at different points in their relationship, they accept a little solace in the form of a shot or two and a smile from the bartender–as well as some full-on flirting, when Jamie laments monogamy in “A Miracle Could Happen.”
In addition to this adorableness, there were L5Y-themed cocktails. (I had a “Moscow Shmuel.”)
This production opens with a street scene: a grocery store and a cafe side-by-side allowed a variety of characters to come and go and interact. There is also a lot of stage business with brandy in this opening sequence: glasses of brandy symbolize disarray and lack of control for one character, while they are pressed on another character to comfort her (or, more precisely, to quiet her hysterics and bring her back into accord with the general consensus).
Later, when townspeople start coming down with rhinoceritis, peculiar eating habits become part of their strangeness. They aren’t hungry when they are supposed to be, or they eat foods that people are not supposed to eat–like a houseplant or (my favorite) a book. From what I could see, the book was a slim volume by Nietzsche, and I was reminded of this poem as I watched Jean tear out a page and crumple it into his mouth.
This retelling of Anna Karenina took place in the first floor of a rowhome with a beautifully appointed kitchen, which became part of the action. In particular, Anna tinkered and puttered in the kitchen when she was unhappy, busying herself with the teakettle when she didn’t want to look at her husband, and pouring water aimlessly from one glass to another when overcome with malaise: lovely, tiny touches that showed how trapped and bored Anna felt in either of her domestic arrangements.
In another scene that echoes the uneasiness of the tea offering in 99 Breakups, Alexei offers to get Anna some peanuts. (Remember, this is a modern retelling that takes place in South Philly; they’re at one of the stadiums to watch Vronsky race his horse.) She declines, and Alexei offers cashews instead. “I hate cashews!” Anna exclaims, and Alexei says snidely “I know.”
I wrote some time ago about some of the rich food scenes in Anna Karenina, both novel and film; obviously there’s no time in an hour-long performance to get into all of that, but they did write in an oh-so-brief and clever nod to the tensions of aristocracy v. the people and European v. homeland tastes: public servant Alexei wants to take Anna to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, while French-accented Anna would prefer to go to Continental (a slick cocktail lounge operated by Philly restaurant mogul Stephen Starr).
This was another production not well-suited to onstage eating: performed in the parlor of Philadelphia’s oldest writing club, this play depicted the legendary stormy summer that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–as an opera, so all available mouths were busy filling up the room with sound. Realistically, there probably were not many occasions for fine dining during their little getaway: the Shelleys were vegetarian, and Lord Byron was a fletcherist. But there was, naturally, a great deal of pantomimed drinking of wine and laudanum.
Opera is a great vehicle for dark-and-stormy-night storytelling, but the libretto allowed some nice moments of humor. For example, in the second act, Mary Shelley tells how the monster (played by a tenor of appropriately Karloffian proportions) learns to speak while living outside of a family’s isolated home in the woods. One of her compatriots asks what he learns to say, and there is a moment of anticipation as the monster visibly gathers himself to speak, then he bursts out: MILK! followed by bread, fire, home, and so forth as in the novel, but that first incongruous sing/shout of MILK in the middle of the bel canto got a good laugh.
In this vibrant, evocative play about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, alcohol plays an enormous role and takes many forms: shotglasses, tall bottles full of amber liquid, delicate teacups (often associated with maternal comfort), and one elaborate absinthe preparation. Henri drinks to assuage his body’s osteal pain and his social isolation. The Moulin Rouge workers, wracked with syphilis and sensitive to social slights, drink for similar reasons as well as to create the illusion of a fun party going on every night. I think it’s not easy to create a good party scene, onstage or in fiction, but this production presented a beautifully textured staging of drunken hilarity and musical mayhem, intercut with starkly lit and dimly scored behind-the-scenes looks at the workers’ hardships.
The female characters in the production were drawn from Toulouse-Lautrec’s vast body of paintings and sketches, including a woman known as La Goulue, or The Glutton. She is not called such in the production, but her character performs a legendary capacity for drink by matching Henri shot for shot with glasses they pull out of a Wunderkammer-style cabinet at the center of the stage. Thinking about her performance and reading about the bawdy real-life Goulue, I’m reminded of the ways we sometimes conflate different forms of appetite, especially for women: a woman with a heroic appetite for food or drink is often presumed to be excessive in other voluptuous tastes as well.
And that concludes the season for me–although many shows are still running this weekend, if you’re local and looking for something to do. Every one listed here comes highly recommended!