Café Nordo–Food Theatre? Victual Drama?–Sets Plates in Washington Hall

We need a new term. It is time, once again, for a production by Café Nordo, Seattle’s most prominent purveyor of a performance form that has become increasingly popular over the last decade or so. Café Nordo combines food and theatre in ways that serve one another rather than simply accompanying one another. These days there are enough people interested in combining food and theatre that there may be a genre in the offing, but how do we speak of it?

Dinner theatre, with its reputation for poor quality food and light entertainment is obviously not what’s going on here. To call it Food Theatre seems obvious but that suggests a Paul Zaloom puppet show, and besides, it’s not the food that’s important but the eating.

Many examples of these Victuals Dramas lean toward the avant-garde end of the world often using the food as a kind of secular Eucharist. Performances by Bread and Puppet Theatre end with cast and audience milling together eating hearty rye bread baked on site in a traditional clay or brick oven and served with powerful aioli. Ed Schmidt, a New York actor, created a show in which he cooked for his audience while talking about the people who made The Last Supper—the actual meal, not the Da Vinci painting. LA Poverty Department’s State of Incarceration project ended with actors and audience making and dining on a prison delicacy known as The Spread.

Closer to home a production by Portland, OR’s Sojourn Theatre called On The Table used a communal meal as the third act and central metaphor of an exploration of the relationship between Portland and its more conservative rural neighbors.

Sharing food is powerful stuff. As Sojourn Theatre’s Artistic Director, Michael Rohd, has noted, we tend to eat with people we know and like. Of course theatre is fairly self-selecting already so the chances of meeting the other beyond the price of admission for a theatre experiment are likely to be low—even when there’s eating. Nonetheless sharing a meal with people we don’t know is a radical act. Even while atomized in our diner booths, eating communally offers ample opportunity to see and be seen, to perform and to eavesdrop, in short, to participate in community.

The performance criticism community has taken notice of this Es Spiel trend from high-brow journals like TDR to more consumer-focused pieces in The Guardian. The Sojourn theatre show was even featured in a 2010 issue of American Theatre Magazine devoted entirely to these Es Spiel productions with food.

They’ve also noticed that food and theatre are moving closer to one another on the flipside as well. The New York Times even went so far as to suggest that dining is the dominant art form, supplanting visual art as the obsession of the NYC elite. In a world full of restaurants with visible kitchens that make the cooking part of the show one might argue that restaurants have become theaters. Certainly cooking has taken a major place in the entertainment sphere with the rise of the celebrity chefs like Rick Baylesscurrently starring and cooking on a Chicago stage. Can it be that Café Nordo’s own celebrity chef, Nordo Lefesczki, served as inspiration for the more corporeal Bayless?

The Nosh Theatre of Café Nordo has been turning up in Seattle biannually since 2009 so they know what they’re doing. This year they’re extending their experiments to include an environmental staging approaching the scale of Punch Drunk Theatre—most famous for their Sleep No More adaptation of MacBeth.

Café Nordo will set up their peculiar restaurant/theater at Washington Hall in the Central District this week to perform Cafe Nordo’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The performance will combine food, theatre, and education into one unified evening. At $70-$80, tickets may seem steep for a show but they’re quite reasonable for dinner and a show and we’re in for quite a dinner. Rabbit confit, pickled fiddleheads, king salmon and a rhubarb and lemon curd trifle wait to be discovered in the maze of rooms at the venerable performance hall. So whether you call it a chow show, nosh theatre, victuals drama, es spiel, or just a food play Café Nordo promises an alimental performance like nothing else in Seattle.