Ghost tours and living history museums fall into a very peculiar sort of theatre. There is an audience. There are performers. For the most part the performers do the talking. Often there is an intermediary or tour guide. Much of the text is direct address, sometimes there are a pair of characters enacting some mild conflict. Each variation on the form includes a good deal of history, varying degrees of entertainment, and a weakness for florid acting and dubious, wavering accents.
Café Nordo’s Cabinet of Curiosities (through June 17; tickets) falls also into this theatrical form, but along with the bits of history and pleasant entertainment there is a lot of excellent food. In combination these elements make for a satisfying evening.
This iteration of Café Nordo’s theatrical dining experience is staged at Washington Hall, which is about to under go a major renovation. That renovation freed Café Nordo to alter spaces to fit their needs. The audience passes through seven spaces in the hall, four dining areas and three anterooms. Some of these have only had a few paintings added to them. Others have been completely repainted with new lighting installed. The décor and performance in each space connects lightly with the food served there.
The logistics of simultaneously serving 60 people a five-course meal are impressive. Most of this slips by unnoticed but a few clever touches stand out including the draping of Mardi Gras beads on patrons with special dietary needs. Another result of the logistical concerns involved is that, unlike the Punch Drunk Theatre’s environmental stagings, Café Nordo is as tightly controlled as a ghost tour. Each of the first three courses takes place in a different room. The patrons are divided into thirds and assigned tour guides who lead the groups of about twenty from room to room. Actors in those rooms perform scenes and serve a course with wine accompaniment.
The audience fills the service time with anticipation. Conversation doesn’t really get going till everyone has tasted the meal. There’s not much isolation in these spaces. Couples and small groups are mixed up as the groups move from one room to the next like a very laid-back networking session.
As for the performance the French Salon is the most dramatic piece, managing to twist out a small plot between serving a mushroom and cheese course and its accompanying wine. The performers banter with cutting double-entendres to the sounds of a jazzy piano. It’s all very Midnight in Paris.
The Invasive Species Lounge is the most theatrically interesting and feels like something from a Caro and Jeunet film as two characters burst on the scene to play games and music. The soup gets the most dramatic staging, which takes more time than one would like but is completely worth the wait surrounded by Mandy Greer sculptures and the aromas of the celeriac.
The main course and dessert are accompanied by live piano and dances by the assembled company. This section also most clearly reveals Café Nordo’s Circus Contraption roots. The final speech makes for a kind of obligatory scene, wrapping up the dining tour with a suggestion of the cyclical, life and death nature inherent in eating.
Advertising and press materials imply that Café Nordo aspires to teach its patrons but the show doesn’t feel remotely didactic. It is a celebration of food and food culture. The program notes food issues such as seasonal, locavore, and anti-invasive species concerns, but one could hardly call it preaching and besides, the patrons are generally members of the choir.
The soup and the morel and camembert tart are highlights among the dishes. The rabbit in the salad is easy to separate and put aside, for the non-meat-eaters, but it is the one part of the salad that stands up to the blue cheese. The potatoes, carrots, and radishes of the main course are incredible and make the salmon seem underwhelming in comparison. The consensus among the disinterested patrons on Friday night was that the show is under-priced with tickets ranging from $60 to $80 (varying with the night and whether or not wine is included). The folks of Café Nordo could easily charge more.
On the whole the production has just a few major weaknesses. The most prominent of these are logistical. Creators Erin Brindley and Terry Prodgorski need to find a clearer and stronger way to break up their groups at the start. A number of patrons were misplaced when the groups were broken up on Friday night leading to some table and chair shuffling, extra room for one group and tight quarters for another. They also need to make tipping more convenient. While tipping is explicitly requested, and well-deserved, there is no credit card receipt where it can be added so be sure to take cash.
Scenic design is excellent. Even in the French Salon, which is painted from floor to ceiling, we never lose touch with the original building. Washington Hall is leading actor in this production and plays its part brilliantly. Sculptures by Nik Weisand, in addition to Mandy Greer’s work, and Dayton Allemann’s projections are also notably strong.
Though the acting is sometimes a bit lush and overwrought that’s hardly problematic in this piece. Bertolt Brecht decried theatre-as-cuisine. Whereas much theatrical work disappoints by striving for depth while achieving gastronomy, Café Nordo embraces the pleasure and ease of the comestible.