At first no sound as several actors put tables and chairs in place. Then the actor playing the waiter flips on the radio and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue fills the auditorium, and we are off.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Siti Company’s latest work “Café Variations” is how it defies neat categorization. Yes there is dance and yes there are theater scenes with dialogue and well defined characters, and yes there is music, but it is none of those things.
That makes the work occasionally frustrating, but it also makes it increasingly fascinating. This particular version of the work, a slimmed down version for a half dozen performers, got its world premiere last weekend at the University of Maryland. It is exactly the type of genre bending work one is more likely to encounter at a university or college as opposed to many other venues.
The basis of the piece is scenes from the short plays of contemporary American playwright Charles Mee – perhaps best known for “Big Love” and “bobrauschenbergamerica.” Mee sees cafes and other eating establishments as intersections in life – where people meet, interact, and leave (not always together). The stage becomes a mega-café where all sorts of characters interact, some times for one scene and other times as recurring characters whose stories stretch out across the evening.
And that is where the variation form comes in. The vast majority of these tales are about love, in all its manifestations. Some scenes are concerned about Mr. Right while others care more for Mr. Right Now. Some are hopeful and some do not end well. At one moment the work becomes totally comical and then the next scene takes a more philosophical turn.
And that is the frustrating part, at least for the start of the play. It takes a little while for the structure of the piece to reveal itself – sort of variations on an unannounced theme that becomes more apparent as the work goes on. It takes a few scenes to see how “Café Variations” is set up, how one passage comments on another and pick out the individual stories that start to emerge.
It is also what makes it intriguing once you get the hang of things. For me at least, about a third of the way through the work, the structure and thrust of the work became clearer. There’s actress Deborah Wallace as a girl who sits at the table alone day after day, waiting for Mr. Right to sit down, and as we watch her encounters throughout the evening, maybe this is her day.
On the other hand, Ellen Lauren is hilarious as a wife who has had more than enough of her husband. She goes on and on about how he drives her crazy until you (and her husband) realize that this woman must be totally bonkers. This may be the same couple that started their relationship speaking dueling metaphysical monologues to one another, during a game of strip poker.
That is another aspect of Mee’s work that becomes apparent as the evening progresses – characters can talk in realistic dialogue and then suddenly go off on a long monologue, the modern day equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy. One man informs another that he has a habit of monopolizing the conversation and just bulldozing people into submission in a hilarious monologue that proves how bulldozing this character really is. Later another character talks poetically about one person/one day and how it all fits together in a soliloquy that is a s philosophical as it is a Mobius strip of ideas. Not all things are so deep or personal – there is a hilarious skit about a waiter trying to force a raspberry tart on a customer.
Well directed by Siti Company co-founder and Artistic Director Anne Bogart. Originally this play included three dozen actors, dancers, and musicians – but for the Maryland premier is was carefully streamlined into the current work with six performers and no seams showing. The Gershwin score plays in the background adding a touch of style and class, while the six actors perform the pieces and occasionally prove to be quite decent dancers during brief interludes between scenes. It would be interesting someday to see the full work as originally devised, but this versions still makes for an intimate and satisfying evening.
This starts the Fall season at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Upcoming highlights include several works related to China, including a co-production with theNational Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that will perform at Maryland September 27-30 and then perform in Beijing.
Other highlights include Lucky Plush Productions “The Better Half,” a re-imagining of the mystery classic Gaslight on October 4 and 5, the SF Jazz Collective performing the music of Chick Corea on October 12, and Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet on February 1 and 2.
For more information on the University season, call (301) 405- 2787 or go online to www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu
Mocovox Entertainment Critic