Thursday, February 26, 2015

Zeitgeist Stage Company Presents "The Big Meal" by Dan LeFranc - A Balanced Meal That Is Filling And Nourishing

It is clear that Dan LeFranc's play, "The Big Meal," draws heavily on Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner," as well as from A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room."  Yet to this time-tested genre of "meal as metaphor for life," Mr. LeFranc adds his own special sauce.  One of the wrinkles that he adds to spice things up is that he offers the script in landscape format - eight columns across. Each actor has his or her own column of text.  It is up to the Director and the actors to orchestrate these eight strands of speech to figure out where, when and how they will step on one another's lines - as we tend to do in everyday speech.  Director David Miller conducts this octet of actors like Keith Lockhart at the Christmas Pops.  There is cacophony when the action of the play calls for it, and there are Grand Pauses and extended silences to allow the cast and the audience to catch their collective breath when the cauldron of conflict and emotions has bubbled over into poignant pathos.

The title could have any one of three meanings.  The entire play is one extended Big Meal, covering four generations of family squabbles, couplings, drunken rants, insults, politically incorrect jokes, snubs, toasts, betrayals, abandonment, forgiveness, denial, births, deaths and quotidian conversations. The Big Meal could refer metaphorically to all that we taste in the course of a lifetime.  And finally, The Big Meal could be that final repast we enjoy before the Grim Reaper comes to claim his harvest.

The actors are universally impressive in their shifting roles.  They have to work hard to keep straight who they are in any particular moment, and the audience has to work equally as hard to keep up.  But sometimes to get to the sweetest lobster meat, you have to expend a lot of energy with implements that let you crack open the shell .  And it is well worth the effort.

  • Peter Brown anchors the male older generation roles with dignity, grace, an occasional twinkle in the eye, and finally the blank stare of dementia.
  • Shelly Brown handles the female older roles, and gives us all something to chew on in a stunning final scene.
  • Josh Clary is an ever-hovering silent Waiter, and perhaps ministering Angel of Death.
  • Becca Lewis portrays multiple middle generation women with a broad range of gestures and voices.
  • Becca's male counterpart is Devon Scalisi who is called upon, as are all the actors, to represent a broad range of emotions and situations.  His stage presence serves as a solidifying anchor to this production.
  • Arianna Reith and Alec Shirman always represent the youngest members of the aging clan - sometimes brother and sister, sometimes cousin - but nearly always driving each other crazy. Just like in most families.
  • Ashley Risteen plays the female characters in their teens and twenties. Sometimes perky, sometimes saucy, sometimes resentful or rebellious, she always brings an energy that keeps the pot boiling.
  • Her male counterpart is Johnny Quinones, who is sometimes suave, sometimes corny, sometimes sullen.  His is a strong presence whenever he is on stage.
(L to R): Peter Brown, Ashley Risteen, Arianna Reith,
Johnny Quinones, Josh Clary, Alec Shiman, Becca A. Lewis,
 Devon Scalisi and Shelley Brown
in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of “The Big Meal.” 
(Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images.)

In additional to David Miler's deft direction, the Lighting Design of Michael Clark Wonson helps the audience to follow the shifting characters and generations.  Sound Design by J. Jumbelic and Costumes by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan complete the creative support team.

The first two thirds of the play contain many moments of hilarity and frenetic activity.  The eight actors play multiple parts, portraying members of the four generations that sprang from the initial awkward meeting of Sam and Nicole.  Pairs of actors portray several characters as children, young adults, parents and finally grandparents and great-grandparents.  When all actors are engaged in conversation and squabbling around the communal table (think Applebees, Olive Garden or TGI Fridays), it seems as if the scene had been written as a result of a collaboration between Chekhov and Timothy Leary.  It gets loud and crazy.

As things calm down and generation succeeds generation, there occur more poignant moments, usually triggered by death or ruptured relationships.  Finally, in a deeply moving set of scenes, Sam and Nicole are alone at the table, with him fading into senescence.  There is still a glowing ember reminiscent of that initial spark of love between them that lit up the stage at the outset.  Sam and Nicole kiss chastely as he finishes his Big Meal, and she is left alone.  The look in the eyes of Nicole (played in the scene by Shelley Brown) speaks as loudly as any of the dialogue that Mr. LeFranc has written.  It says "Where has the time gone?  How did I get here?  Is that all there is?"  It is a chilling and thrilling moment in the play that left me with tears of wonder and of empathy.  Mr. LeFranc must have snuck some wasabi into the final course. It warms and stings all at once.

All in all, it was a very filling, satisfying and nourishing meal.  When you come, bring an appetite for entertainment and reflection.

The play will run at the Plaza Black Box Theater at the BCA through March 7th.

Zeitgeist Stage Website



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