Shows from the 14/48 Projects are hit-or-miss; and much more so when dining is involved. But the current installment — which started tonight and runs only through this weekend — includes an excellent lineup or artists across all disciplines, and the show (and accompanying four-course meal) hits all the right notes.
Food Thunderdome has grown up.
The last time I went to Food Thunderdome, the annual collaboration between the 14/48 Projects and Café Nordo, the food was so bad a chef actually apologized — as he should have, with risotto so crusty I sat there whacking it with a spoon after it had sat under a heat lamp for hours. The plays that time, unfortunately, weren’t much better.
This time around, the food is a total turnaround. And the evening of theatre hit the spot, too.
The premise of 14/48 is that everything is done quickly: plays concocted, cast drawn (at random), lines learned, sets and costumes designed, all in less than a week. And, for the Food Thunderdome version held at Café Nordo each year, perhaps the scariest element: a 4-course meal — integrated into the script and performance — designed around an assigned ingredient, and purchased, cooked, and served up in mass quantities in short order.
Given that it must follow the script, which in turn is hot off the press sometime that week, it’s no surprise that the menu isn’t released until very late in the game, after most tickets have been purchased and nights are planned. All considered, it’s an act of faith on the part of the audience, whether in the talent of those participating that round, or in the reputations of the theatre companies involved, or simply a willingness and privilege to roll the dice at $65 a head.
With this installment, it’s a great bet.
All four of the writers (Maggie Lee, Roger Tang, Marcus Gorman, and Becky Bruhn) understood the flair for the dramatic required here — the quick, the punchy, the thoughtful and interesting over trite — and they delivered. Lee’s was outlandish but critically examining (asking the duties owed to future generations in the construct of a dance competition); as was Gorman’s, which considered an unusual familial relationship (among humans and human-produce hybrids), bullying, and genetic modification. Tang’s piece was funny and unexpected, a competition of refinement, rich with satirical class warfare and Star Wars jokes.
Bruhn was the only writer whose work I was unfamiliar with. She happened to also have the thankless task of sharing a table with me, and warned no heckling or audible booing allowed during her piece (booooo), only appropriately timed laughter and polite clapping (OK, she was probably joking). Luckily. I didn’t have to hold back or come out with any of that golf-clapping crap. The play — which featured a messy bride-to-be, some friends, and a cruise ship — was very funny, and the director and actors’ interpretations through movement and icy wit were spot-on.
Throughout, the actors were fantastic. In this model, they’re drawn at random for the play and then assigned by the director among the few available roles, rather than cast from scratch or among the whole pool. They get a couple days, maybe, to learn their lines and roles — which, with that little prep, no doubt always requires a little improv and quick thinking. The directors have the under-the-radar role of putting everything together. And the designers, the similarly behind- the-scenes task of making everything visible shine with the parts, creating a world that’s easily portable in very short order.
If I didn’t know everything started out and coalesced just this week, I’d be happy anyway. But knowing that, and waiting to see what happens, makes the whole thing a lot more fun — especially when it all runs together this well.
The talented band, fronted by Kate Jaeger — who occasionally decides to show off with some mighty (and welcome) flourishes — serves triple-duty: musical interludes, sound effects, and host.
And then there’s the food. I’ll admit, I feared the worst. When they finally released the menu, it sounded questionable at best, repulsive at worst.
Salsa three ways? Snooze.
A short-order poached egg? Recipe for disaster.
Fried ling cod or bok choy? Meh.
Strawberry sparkle surprise? Effervescently horrifying.
Dessert was amazing. Wherever “Happy Hour Cookies” is, I need to get on that.
The poached egg was totally non-offensive, and the mix of that with shaved asparagus reminded me of my favorite brunch meal of all time — the oeufs Rue Cler, served atop brioche with hollandaise, that I used to get when I lived in Durham. (The skirt steak dish, in contrast, wasn’t great, say those who ate the beef. But skirt steak is gross anyway, so … ? I could’ve told them that.)
The salsa three ways — sweet, interesting, and just barely a hint of spicy — was fun and unexpected.
The ling cod was, all agreed, too chewy and fishy — and the smoke reminded me of lox — so the entree wasn’t the highlight. But the batter was nice, and the accoutrements cooked well, so I polished it off anyway. It makes me wonder how the veggie entree (fried bok choy, oddly) would have been.
See photo gallery of all four courses on NWT’s Instagram, @nwtheatredotorg.
This week’s outstanding Food Thunderdome artists are:
Writers: Maggie Lee, Roger W. Tang, Marcus Gorman, Becky Bruhn
Directors: Gavin Reub, Lia Sima Fakhouri, Anasstasia Higham, Andrew McMasters
Chefs: Erin Brindley (Café Nordo), Justin Newstrum (9th & Hennepin Donuts), Christian Rosso (Café Nordo), Annie St. John (Happy Hour Cookies)
Actors: Caitlin Frances, Andy Buffelen, Ana Maria Campoy, Anasofia Gallegos, Sasha Bailey, Val Brunetto, Cody Smith, Madi Cooper, JP Hamilton, Martyn G. Krouse, Corinne Magin, Kate Drummond, Mariko Kita, Mimi Santos
Designers: Gerard Menendez, Nick Spencer, Emily Sershon, Kasia Rozanska, Dani Norberg, Margaret Toomey
Band: Kate Jaeger, Evan Mosher, Robertson Witmer, Owen Yen
Stage Manager: Kaeline Kine
Photographer: Joe Iano
And the cast of servers who make everything run exceptionally well, including Susanna Burney
Overall, the combined efficient writing, snappy acting and directing, and keen design work, ended up serving the dinner theatre format better than what a lot of Café Nordo’s shows do. And the humor and pacing made it a lot more fun, too. This collection of artists and chefs was a total hit. Whatever your feelings on Food Thunderdome shows past, this one is worth your renewed attention. Take a gamble — I’m glad I did.
Food Thunderdome (first week) runs through 5/18 at Café Nordo’s Culinarium in Pioneer Square; a second weekend, with all new artists and menu, follows (from 5/23-25). Tickets are $65, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org. He’s a big fan of good food, strong writing, and creative beer koozies.