Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
August 5, 2009
The idea for Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant came about when the cast of a regional Shakespeare production stumbled upon a sign. Literally. The sign was for "Conni's Restaurant"—an abandoned diner in the town where they were doing the show. Seeing it, the artists wondered what it would be like if a group of experimental theatre artists owned and ran the restaurant. Thus the idea for Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant was born.
The show is structured in this way, with the cast and creators of the piece making up the staff and performers of a delightfully eccentric restaurant. The restaurant is in the the Ohio Theatre, in this instance, and the theatre—and your theatre-going experience—is re-modeled to be a part of it.
At the door, you sign in with a lady in a pith helmet and are given your program. On attempting to enter the theatre, an ominous man in a red suit and shades blocks your way. He checks your program as though it's an ID, and only after eyeing you suspiciously does he let you enter the theatre. From there, you proceed to a table where a variety of colorful nametags are spread out for the choosing: Some favorites included "General Malaise," "Rated ARRRRR," and "The Ass Whisperer." Choose wisely, as this will be your name for the evening. After mingling for a bit and being fed delicious fruity ice pops, you are greeted by the ragtag group of experimental artists who inhabit Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant—including a Billy Idol wannabe, a wholesome American princess, a cowboy, and the grand dame, Ms. Muffin Character Hanshake. They greet you in song, and lay out the rules: you are not a customer, you are a guest; the actors are artists, not waiters; and, most importantly, this is not dinner theatre!
But the thing is, this is not necessarily true. Because what follows is that this group of artists usher you into the theatre proper—which has been transformed into a grand banquet hall—and proceed to perform a series of elaborate vignettes and songs, while serving you a four-course meal, complete with pitchers upon pitchers of Sangria. If that isn't dinner theatre, I don't know what is. If the show isn't anything, it's not BAD dinner theatre, which it seems the term "dinner theatre" is synonymous with nowadays. Far from it: Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant is hilarious, inventive, and engaging dinner theatre and at $40 a head for four courses, Sangria, and a show, it's a steal in the current economic climate.
What the show does most effectively is to take two entirely opposite performance styles—the fluff of cabaret style dinner theatre and the intellectual aspiration of experimental theatre—and gives each one a healthy dose of the other. At Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant, experimental performance can be entertaining, and dinner theatre can aspire to mean something more than pure entertainment. The most effective moment of this comes early on when one of the ensemble, dressed as a reindeer, enters and starts to prance about. From behind a curtain, a cowboy appears with his rifle and shoots her dead. What follows is an epic ritual sacrifice of the deer carcass, after which another one of the ensemble declaims "Killing without Reason is Murder. Eat Salad." After which the audience is served a refreshing watermelon, feta, and mint salad.
Ultimately, though, entertainment wins the night, which leaves some of the loftier aspirations of the piece feeling a little confused, muddled, and unresolved. Regardless, Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant is an eclectic, fun evening, and uniquely theatrical experience. If Tony and Tina's Wedding is too low-brow for you, but you just can't stand Robert Wilson's cooking, Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant might be just what you're looking for.