Cafe Variations: A New Take on an Old Theme

This past weekend, I saw Cafe Variations, a new show directed by Anne Bogart that combines text from various Charles Mee plays and Gershwin songs. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and leaving, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had experienced, but it was certainly a fresh, new way of shedding light on the age-old topic: love.

The show is the result of a collaboration between SITI Company, ArtsEmerson and Emerson Stage, and the influences of each was evident. SITI Company, under the Artistic Direction of Anne Bogart, is built on ensemble collaboration. They also use a physical approach to acting designed by founding member Tadashi Suzuki. ArtsEmerson is committed to bringing new and legendary works to Boston, and Emerson Stage is the producing department of Emerson’s Performing Arts department. This collaboration meant that the creators of the work were professionals from the SITI Company, and most of the ensemble of actors were Emerson students. The entire cast was extremely talented, and though it was clear who was a student and who was a professional, this was mostly due to age. The collaboration between these three companies was not only special for the city of Boston, but a great opportunity for the students who were able to participate in a world premiere. It blurs the line between educational and professional theatre (much like the BCAP does), which I feel is very important, so as to not have students graduating who have only ever worked within their schools.

Cafe Variations resists easy categorization–there’s too much music and dancing for it to be a play, and yet it’s not quite a musical. But the fact that it breaks categorical boundaries is one of the things that makes this piece refreshing. The central plot structure is pretty basic; one of the actors at the talkback said that Anne Bogart was interested in exploring the traditional “boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” narrative in a new way. And that is what she does. The play opens with a woman sobbing over a waiter at a cafe, and ends with the same woman in tears over the same man. The opening moment is somewhat of a prelude; shortly after we see the couple’s first interaction, and follow their relationship through the play. We see them only in short scenes, though, as we are also introduced to five other couples. It is hard to get too emotionally invested in any of the characters or relationships since everything moves so quickly, but I did find myself close to tears at the end of the show, when the waiter breaks up with the woman and sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Other than that, though, the only other relationship I had any emotional attachment to was an older couple. In one of the most amusing and touching segments of the show, they play strip poker, nervous about making themselves vulnerable to each other, but both obviously craving companionship and intimacy in every sense.

Bogart made great use of space in the moment when the older couple has a fight, and the woman climbs off the stage and runs through the audience, ending up back in front of the stage, and ultimately exiting through a side door in the theatre on to the street. It broke the fourth wall in a way that was different than it had been done before. The characters had at various times been singing and speaking to the audience before, but this was the first time they actually left their space and entered ours. The show hadn’t been living in a world of realism before this moment, but this took it solidly out. Having the actress not only leave the space of the stage but physically leave the space of the theatre was a surprising choice, though. I saw a matinee, so when she opened the door, sunlight flooded into the dark auditorium in a way that was disconcerting, though not unpleasant. I imagine passers-by must have been startled and amused to see a woman in a 1950s-style dress with a full skirt burst out of the theatre in a frenzy. It’s great, though, because it in a small way involves them in a performance, and blurs the line between performer, spectator and uninvolved bystander. The transition was probably most jarring for the actress herself, as she is forced to leave the private world of the theatre, in which everyone has chosen to be there for one central purpose, and once again enter the ‘real world.’ I wonder if she was able to stay in character the whole time, or if it was a struggle for her not to allow the change to take her out of the moment completely.

One of the central ideas that this piece plays with is the concept of “fractals.” There are ten characters, but each of them is played by three actors: A, B and C. Each actor represents a different part of the person: a fractal. This stems from the concept that as people, we are more than one thing; we exist outside of our selves. One actor explained fractals as the options when playing Russian Roulette: whether you pull the trigger and it’s empty or there’s a bullet, the other option is possible and exists in another universe. So maybe in one world, one version of ourselves does stay in a particular relationship with someone, while another version makes a different choice. It’s a fascinating idea, and one that is absolutely worth exploring, but I’m not sure that this production really utilizes it to its fullest extent. Perhaps the influence between the three actors playing the same character was subtle and I just didn’t pick up on it, but honestly if they hadn’t been dressed in the same colors, I’m not sure I would have noticed it at all. Maybe part of the problem was just that there were too many people on stage. It felt cluttered at times, and difficult to focus on any one thing. At the same time, though, the point of the show isn’t to get a realistic portrait of a relationship between two singular people. It’s more of a montage or collage of relationships that leave us with a greater understanding of how love can enter our lives, grow, change, succeed or fail. During the talkback, one older woman asked the actors why it was that the show didn’t have a happy ending, adding, “It would have been nice if [the woman in love with the waiter] got what she wanted in the end.” The actors smiled at this, and then one responded that “whether a relationship has a happy or sad ending depends on when you decide the ending is.” This comment was really thought-provoking for me, and I think it helps to illuminate the show.

Cafe Variations was gorgeously designed, with the women in full-skirted 1950s-style dresses and the men in tailored suits. The set was stunning as well: a glittery, beaded curtain hid the on-stage orchestra from view, and a sparkling chandelier hung above center stage. The decadent décor perfectly complimented the lush Gershwin tunes, which the actors sung beautifully. The real intellectual value of the show, though, comes from the dark underside to these lovely sounds and images. Chuck Mee’s text, though sometimes as unabashedly romantic as the Gershwin lyrics, is often biting, and addresses the potential scary side of relationships. Anyone is dangerous, because anyone you get attached to has the power to hurt you. This is no reason not to enter into a relationship, but it is something we often forget in the flush of new love.

The choreography for this piece was a mix of traditional musical theatre-style dance, with individual tap sequences as well as full choral numbers, an Apache-style dance fight, and stylized movement throughout. I learned in the talkback that every single movement was precisely blocked, so as to free the actors from having to think about their bodies and instead be able to be free in their emotional lives. It was obvious that nothing was spontaneous; even the waiter’s pratfall in the beginning felt more like he was commenting on a pratfall than actually trying to execute one for laughs. One of the most effective aspects of this movement choreography was the segment between a man and a woman that was repeated at different times throughout the production by different couples. It involved them sitting, reaching out to touch each other lovingly, then getting in some sort of dispute, standing up, one reaching out to the other who would throw off their hands, sending their arms in a wide circle and then landing back on the other’s shoulders. This sequence expresses a range of emotions in a short span of time, and by removing specific dialogue from it, it becomes immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. We can place our own context or assumptions upon the blank palate of the movements, making us actively involved in the performance. Having different couples perform the sequence also emphasized one of the show’s central ideas, which is that relationships are universal; even though each one is unique, they have more in common with each other than they have differences.

One of the most interesting things this show explores is gender. For most of the time, all the couples are male and female. The interactions between them culminate in a huge full-cast dance battle, in which moves and words (“A man in just a vibrator with a wallet” was one of my favorites) are hurled back and forth. After this, the traditional relationship structure begins to break down a little bit. Two men fall in love, and one couple swaps clothes, so that the woman is wearing a tux and then man is in a dress. It was lovely for me to see two men having a romantic conversation on stage; the fact that it was presented in a very nonchalant way–no different from any of the straight couples–felt refreshing and important. The clothes-switch was a little more difficult to derive meaning from because I wasn’t really clear on what that particular couple had been doing before they swapped outfits. This goes back to my feeling that maybe there were too many people on stage. Still, I think the details of their relationship are not important, and that the production was trying to emphasize the possible overturning of gender norms. In a production that otherwise looked traditional in every sense of the word, this was a nice moment of transcending expectations.

I think Cafe Variations has a lot to say not only about relationships and love, but about the structure of theatre and the rewards that come from breaking form. This piece is neither a musical nor a play, and that is fine and exciting. Breaking both these forms and combining pieces from each ends up creating a visually stunning, emotionally engaging piece of theatre.

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