'Empty Plate' surprisingly satisfying
Invisible Theatre closes 39th season with powerful play
At first glance, the premise of "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf "might seem unsubstantial. However, this last production of the Invisible Theatre’s 39th season provides belly laughs, a dollop of irony and even some bittersweet emotional moments of truth.
"An Empty Plate" is an example of "dramedy," a genre that is neither fish nor fowl. Michael Hollinger’s script is replete with literary quotes and period historical references for gravitas, juxtaposed against slapstick and comic wordplay. Tragic situations are played out in black comedy. As expected, there’s a "Duck!" joke.
The central character, Victor, is a decadent, overindulgent American in Paris circa 1961. Victor is so wealthy, jaded and spoiled that he keeps a fabulous restaurant with its fawning staff solely for his personal use. Seven course meals are standard fare; entrees from chateaubriand to fricasseed platypus and endless recipes involving white truffles, garlic, thyme and virgin olive oil, await him 24/7.
An admirer of Hemingway, Victor has just returned from the bullfights in Madrid. Despondent for reasons that the play slowly reveals, he has decided to starve himself to death at his restaurant. The loyal employees – maitre d' Claude, his wife and hostess Mimi, chef Gaston and waiter Antoine – try to talk, then tempt him from this gruesome course.
The character of Victor as written is none too endearing: self-absorbed, talentless, over-endowed financially and under-endowed elsewhere. He eventually realizes that he has no friends, only courtiers.
As Victor, veteran actor Roberto Guajardo is by turns doleful, disconsolate, slack-jawed, determined, and finally, fulfilled. His eyes are especially communicative; his abrupt shifts from 1,000 yard stare to full focus are a director’s delight. Guajardo’s skillful physical performance holds our attention, and ultimately, our sympathy.
Guajardo is ably supported by Sean William Dupont as Claude, Carrie Hill as Mimi, and David Alexander Johnston as Gaston. UA student Brad Kula as Antoine contributes hilarious physical comedy and some perfectly miserable flugel horn playing. An understated late appearance by Cynthia Jeffery as Victor’s love interest is the fulcrum for the play’s serious and most profound moments.
Longtime Arizona Theatre Company director Samantha Wyer, in her debut working with Invisible Theatre, makes particularly good use of this more constrained space. Her creative, frenetic choreography generates a visually effective screwball atmosphere. She also adds numerous comedic grace notes throughout to compliment the main action.
The script by playwright Michael Hollinger is not perfect, but it is effective. There are minor flaws: why are the help suddenly discussing their personal lives with Victor? ?ow will the love triangles among the staff be resolved?
The writing shows significant depth in its interweaving of Hemingway’s life and writings to explain Victor. Moving beyond its sensual gourmand descriptions and lightheartedness, the play manages to get deadly serious for a few minutes near the end, bringing an unexpected emotional catharsis, before moving to its final tasty joke.
The high entertainment value of "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf" epitomizes why the Invisible Theatre has survived for 39 years.