Russ Hunt's Reviews

Seven Menus
Theatre St. Thomas
July 1999

OK, here's how we spent our Friday night . . . while we were away I'd had an email from Karla O'Regan, who was in the first Aquinas Program and who'd been active in theatre at STU for four years, graduated and went to Toronto to do law and criminology, and who's back working for the "Youth at Risk Centre" this summer, saying a group was putting together something called "Dinner at Eight," and it might be fun. There were a few posters up around campus, but I didn't see much other publicity. We decided that Friday night was when we could get there.

So we get to Dunn Hall about ten minutes early (expecting that with the thin publicity and the fact that it's summer there'll be no trouble getting in) and discover that there's nobody in the lobby and the doors are closed, with a sign on them. "Oh, no," I thought, "they cancelled because absolutely nobody came." But the sign on the door said "Entrance through Green Room."

We went round the corner, and there was the Green Room door open, with someone playing the piano inside, a big sign saying "Welcome to Seven Menus," and people gathered around, and Lynn from the computing centre selling tickets at the door. "Actually," she said, "we don't have any tickets left, but I think there's still room." After we were in the Green Room, she closed the door and went back to check: I think it turned out we were the last people in. It was sold out. But we didn't know that for a few minutes, as we lined up in the little balcony between the Green Room and backstage, and then went through a curtained off entryway (behind the curtain, I knew, was the loading bay and the backstage work area, but you couldn't tell; the curtain frame had little flower baskets on it and it actually felt sort of elegant). When we came into view of the theatre, you could see a chalkboard menu with the evening's specials on it, beyond that a headwaiter's stand, then a jukebox, and behind that a bar. We noticed later that there was a lit fish tank with fish swimming in it in the back wall. The maitre d', (Jef Bate Boerop, whom we've admired in a half dozen STU productions) was seating people in groups at tables scattered around the box, some on raised platforms by the walls, others in the middle. All the tables had white tablecloths, bread baskets and water pitchers (real bread, real water) and table settings. And Billie Holliday on the jukebox.

A subtle change in the lighting (there were a lot of these, and most of them were very elegant) let us know that things were starting -- and then the lights came up on a table in the center of the room, where four people were having a conversation. It turned out to be a David Ives script called "Seven Menus," which I don't remember seeing before -- though I must have -- involving a kind of interrupted conversation between a group of people with a constantly changing membership and repeated motifs -- so that, for instance, a bell rings and they freeze while one character leaves and is replaced by another one, in the scene and in the relationship -- as though the same conversation had picked up with the new person in it. This happens a half dozen times, and Ives plays this amazing game with the same lines or ideas recurring in the new relationships, sort of as though the people were stuck in a time warp, where the same issues kept coming up over and over. The actors were strong, and confident, and obviously having a hell of a good time. In all, I think seven of them at various times sat at the table and were replaced by others, and every one was identifiable as a character. I admired all of them, but especially like Karla O'Regan expressing contempt for Anna Silk's equally admirable breathless enthusiasm for her character's job as a "food therapist." Although I had the same trouble as I often do with student actors in the box -- it's hard to understand the ones not facing you -- it was significantly less difficult than it's often been.

As the first item (identified, I found out later, as the "first course" on the menu we should have been given when we were seated, but weren't), the lights came up on the headwaiter, who welcomed us all to "Seven Menus" and invited us to be shameless and let ourselves eavesdrop (the way we might watch the fish, he said, polishing a spot off the aquarium glass), for a change. As he moved back to his station the lights came up on the bar and we got a wonderful scene from David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in which a guy at a bar (Tony Bull, who's been around theatre at St. Thomas forever, but whom I can't remember seeing act before, and who was riveting) relates an encounter with a woman ("I don't know, 19, 20") who seems to want to reenact the Battle of Britain during sex, and ends up setting the room on fire. Wonderful, over the top, energetic, macho-David-Mamet funny.

As they leave, they pass a woman (Karla again) coming in who walks through the restaurant, passes a guy alone at a table near us, does a double take, and winds up having an extended, intimate conversation with someone from 13 years in the past with whom, we discover, she has lots to say (an excerpt from a play by Frank Gilroy called A Way With Words, which I didn't know). The evening continued, with the lights helping us focus on different tables and the bar, to present a skit called "Louis and Dave" by Norm Foster, in which two bozos out to harass chicks for the evening make the astonishing discovery that one of them is "an intellectual," another which we had seen before, called "Anything for You," by Cathy Celesia, in which two women (Karla and Anna, and another focused, clear, funny relationship) discover just how deep their friendship runs, and ended with a ripping canter through a classic David Ives piece called "Sure Thing," which involves a meeting in a restaurant in which every time things go wrong in the conversation -- which is pretty frequently -- a bell rings and the conversation goes back a turn or three. E.g.: "What are you reading?" "The Sound and the Fury." "Oh, Hemingway." DING! "What are you reading?" "The Sound and the Fury." "Oh, Faulkner." Etc. Very funny stuff, and although I thought the actors rushed it just a bit -- there didn't seem to be quite enough punctuation around the "DING!"s -- it worked wonderfully, especially the eager, hesitant Bill, played by Jeff Richardson, who had been opposite Karla in Brian Friel's Lovers a couple of years ago.

What a wonderful surprise the whole evening was. All the actors were solid, competent and engaged, and the production values -- lighting, set, etc. -- were just fine. The Box was used in a way I've never seen it used before, and showed again what a wonderful, flexible space it is. You never once thought (as you often do in the kinds of productions that get slapped together over the summer), "Can they carry this off?" or "Look how they had to compromise there," or "They're all certainly carrying this actor." You were just completely involved in the experience.

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