Dry chicken breasts weren’t the only thing being cut in the Ratty this weekend — but scenes were, too.
Shakespeare on the Green theater troupe put on Tina Howe’s 1979 “The Art of Dining,” directed by Paul Martino ’17. The play was performed not on stage but in the Sharpe Refectory, in one of the auxiliary dining rooms on the side of the main cafeteria. The room was set up like a restaurant, with white-clothed tables, merry-go-round centerpieces, a functional kitchen with real food and a sound system.
The setup evoked a Jersey Shore restaurant operated by married couple Cal and Ellen, played by Judson Ellis ’19 and Talia Brenner ’19, respectively.
“Cal used to be a lawyer. He was a really educated guy,” Ellis said, describing his character. “After eight years of running a successful business, he quit to start a restaurant with his wife in their living room. He has stakes in the financial aspect, and tends to freak out about it.”
Indeed, much of the play’s humor in the early scenes came from the mile-a-minute concurrent diatribes shouted by Cal and Ellen to one another. Cal, preoccupied with paying off the restaurant’s loans, obsesses over getting as many people into the restaurant as possible. Ever the gourmand, Ellen favors quality over quantity and savors each bite of her high-end preparations. In the hilariously awkward opening scene, Cal and Ellen spend several minutes eating poached pears, moaning and contorting their faces in ecstasy.
The audience is right in the center of action, seated at tables in the middle of the room. As the restaurant’s patrons arrive, they are seated around the fringe of the room, creating the feeling that the audience and characters are really mingling at adjacent tables at a restaurant. First to arrive are Hannah and Paul Galt, an over-the-top hipster couple played by Kristina Belyakova ’19 and Haley Wong ’20. They compete over who has the best taste in food and, ironically, which of them is able to eat the least and feel satiated.
At the heart of the play are the characters’ relationships with food. “The Art of Dining” tackles the topic of eating disorders with a firm but gentle hand, with insinuations that are unsubtle but unostentatious. Characters deal with stress eating, binge eating, bulimia, body dysmorphia and other strained relationships with food. Even Ellen focuses on her haute cuisine with an unhealthy obsession.
The most obvious and heart-wrenching depiction of eating disorder comes in the form of Elizabeth Barrow-Colt, a neurotic writer played brilliantly by Ali Murray ’18. Elizabeth comes to the restaurant to meet a publisher who wants to print a collection of her short stories, but her anxiety turns her into a nervous wreck. The show plays the long game with her backstory, revealing bit-by-bit how her stressful childhood left her with a fear of food and kitchens. With each revelation, the audience’s hearts break just a little more.
After some more funny shenanigans and dramatic pas de deux, the production’s cathartic finale brings all the characters together in the center of the room for dessert. They share a pan full of crepes suzette — a dish famously and deliciously invented by accident.
Notable is the play’s use of real food (and real eating), prepared meticulously by Brenner’s Ellen when the action is elsewhere in the restaurant. Brenner said she drew on her knowledge of cooking shows to prepare herself for the role. “I watch a lot of Food Network,” she said. “Nothing makes a plate look fancier than random condiment smeared on the rim.”
Brown Dining restrictions meant that the food the characters were eating was cold, and Brenner was not allowed to use a real knife when preparing the dishes. “I had to use the side of a cheese grater,” she said.
Ellis joined the cast late, replacing the original Cal, who had suffered an injury, and learned his lines and many monologues in just two weeks. “The hardest part was definitely learning all of my lines in such a short span of time,” he said. “But I have a lot of friends in Shakespeare on the Green, and they were all really supportive.”
Michael O’Neill ’19 was in attendance. “It’s definitely one of the most dynamic shows I’ve seen at Brown,” he said. “It managed to transition from hilarious to heartbreaking without a hitch, which is something only the best directors, actors and actresses can pull off.”
The play also starred Samantha Crausman ’18, Liesl Jaeger ’18, Ani Mack ’17 and Ben Morris ’20, along with Gail, who poked her head in for a bit.