Café Variations at Arts Emerson

I saw Café Variations on Sunday at Arts Emerson.  Directed by Anne Bogart, with Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and words from Charles Mee, this musical is both full of heart and completely heartbreaking.  The set is beautiful- a shimmering silver curtain hides the orchestra and the paneled ceiling changes colors with the mood of the play.  It took me a while to get my bearings in this musical- the first several moments are silent- just movements, with characters moving in and out of a café that keeps morphing itself; tables and chairs are constantly being rearranged by a cast of characters that seems to never end.  Just when I think I’ve seen all the characters there could possibly be, a new face emerges, but they’re all dressed so similarly it’s hard to tell who’s who…  Eventually the rhythm of the musical got into my body and I understood the churning nature of this play, where relationships can come and go in the blink of an eye, or last a lifetime.  Although many of the characters look and dress alike, and many relationships flit past, two couples stand out.  First, the girl in the blue dress who is waiting in the café for the love of her life- only, she doesn’t know who he is yet.  Luckily, the love of her life is right in front of her- the grey haired waiter who falls (literally) head over heels for her.  The other relationship that stayed with me was between a big, burly man with a gruff disposition and a little, quirky old woman.  They cultivate their relationship over a game of strip poker and there’s something that’s deliciously offbeat about their love, as well as heartbreakingly honest.

The evolution of the mood of Café Variations is also quite interesting.  When the play begins, every couple is male-female, every interaction is politely flirtatious and “love” is in the air.  But something seems sort of off. There’s a feeling of something slightly menacing behind the polite gestures and frozen smiles.  As the musical progresses, relationships become less black and white and clear lines dissolve.  Men kiss men and men and women swap clothing, while interactions become less and less pristine.  The message I got from all of that?  That we have this idea of what love is, a picture perfect idea of the handsome man and beautiful woman falling in love and living happily, happily ever after.   But Café Variations reminds us that love doesn’t really work that way.  It can be amazing and overpowering and consuming but it can also be fleeting and amorphous and frustrating and stupid.  The two relationships that I will remember were two of the most flawed- the large man and old woman fought viciously at times over their game of cards and said horrible, hurtful things to one another and the waiter ended up leaving the woman in the blue dress because he thought he was too old for her and that he would be decrepit by the time she was fifty.  And while it sounds like a bitter message, somehow I left with a feeling of hope, and full of love.  Because even though those relationships were flawed, the love that they experienced, though brief, was so real and honest.

The movement in Café Variations is heavily influenced by Anne Bogart’s work with viewpoints.  A lot of the time an actor might be saying one thing, while the story that’s being told with their body is something completely different.  While most of the movement is very stylized, it isn’t always what I expected from the 1950’s era evoked by the costumes and set, and added an offbeat tone to the piece.  Sometimes the play did seem a little disjointed; a little bit jerky as far as pacing goes, and some of the musical numbers don’t quite seem to fit or be necessary, but I find myself eager to forgive and forget these few moments in a play so full of heart.

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