Dinner theatre is always a curious blend of food and drama – do you critique the cuisine as well as the acting, should the food complement the plot, does the menu matter as much as the dialogue? Radiohole’s radical approach to dinner and a play, Now Serving: A Guide to Aesthetic Etiquette in Four Courses, delightfully defies all expectations with an immersive and surreal supper party that probes the role of food in feminism with extraordinary results. You may never look at a hotdog in the same way again.
There are two levels of tickets for Now Serving – dinner guests and general admission. Think carefully before opting to dine on the set as those seats are prone to showers of Wonderbread, salad, and dressing. Wherever you sit, you’ll be offered a cocktail in the lobby on arrival – a choice of three different drinks served by friendly bartenders wearing animal noses. The lighting is dim and a vodka punch streams out of a fountain lit up in eerie red. Ticket holders are called in individually to the theatre and at a series of box offices they are invited to put their hands in a “lucky dip” for a token. It’s a fun diversion, but the significance of each token seems arbitrary as they are all later handed over in exchange for beer (Pabst), popcorn (slightly stale), and Junior Mints. When the curtain pulls back, a formal dinner table is revealed in a white dining room and the ten people with dinner seats are already in position. On screens framed in ornate gold, black and white videos play in which 1930s and 1940s diners are instructed in etiquette. The hosts –three women in steampunk – attire join the diners at the table. And then slices of Wonderbread fall from the ceiling with disturbing news about the origin of its yeast!
Who are these women and where are they? Their manners are formal, even ritualistic, and they are solicitous to their guests, making sure that the wine served via tubes from medical blood bags hanging from the ceiling is replenished and demonstrating what to do with the Wonderbread (paint on some pink goo and ball it up before eating). A waiter, played by Eric Dyer, in a giant frog head, assists. The hosts, portrayed with an undercurrent of seething mayhem by Amanda Bender, Erin Douglass, and Maggie Hoffman, might be sisters of Jean Genet’s Maids. They chit chat politely with each other on such subjects as the meaning of “I’m sorry” while another speech is a string of clichés. A violinist, Catherine McRae, plays sinister chords ripped straight from a horror movie soundtrack. Despite their veneer of genteel manners, these women have much darker things on their mind. In the tiny print program, a complicated backstory explains that this is a special secret place, a respite from a dystopian world – a hole where the women are in charge and condescend to allow their former male oppressor, Pepe, presumably the frogman, to live with them as long as he “pays for his prior misogynistic way of life” at every dinner party they give.
As the four courses unfold, Pepe’s dues are paid in full. The food is none too appetizing: salad is thrown at the guests and a sloppy beet soup suggests something more sinister. The dishes are cleared in a very expedient way and, when other things are consumed, one of the women exclaims, “It’s chewier than I thought it would be.” Pepe ends up “served” on the table and that’s when some members of the audience are invited to eat hotdogs! Dessert brings more surprises and long explanation from a dessert chef played by Kristen Worrall.
While the message of the play seems to be fairly simple – end male domination, whatever it takes – what is more engaging is the crazy dinner. It’s a mesmerizing experience full of highly inventive surprises, both on the food and the action front. A few of the courses drag on a little too long, but the play leaves a refreshing, iconoclastic taste that will be hard to forget.