There's an uneasy early moment—the first of several, as it turns out—in Blowfish, playwright Carl Thiessen's deceptive one-man-show-that-really-isn't. It's obvious why I'll have to tell you about it: Raleigh Ensemble Players' abbreviated five-night run of the show, in a gallery of Cary's Page-Walker House that couldn't have held 50 patrons, surely robbed hundreds of regional theater-goers of the chance to experience one of the more intriguing evenings of the season.
We were seated at tables stunningly set for formal dining. Crystal stemware—filled, alas, with only water for a working critic—gleamed in golden candlelight above table arrangements in white and black linen, while a tuxedoed musician coaxed Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" from a baby grand piano in the corner. Miniature quiches with mushrooms, leeks, parmesan and goat cheese had already been offered as hors d'oeuvres.
But as our host—Lumiere, a caterer by trade, and the center of the still-undefined event for which we had gathered—assured us he was here to serve us splendidly this evening, he was carefully lowering the shades, one by one, on all of the windows in the room except the one that was furthest from his guests.
Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the candlelight, or the sheen of unreality bestowed somehow by the heightened aesthetic of the epicure. Either way, a moment's mistrust ensued, in which the ghost of a thought flickered: What is this magic trick we have been placed inside? In a moment, will the world disappear—or will we be made to disappear instead?
As it turns, the question was prescient. Something more than eggplant timbales and Cornish hen was slated to disappear that night. Our host had also constructed this fine and private place as a personal vanishing point as well, a locus of departure in the midst of the utmost in dignity and taste. On the way out, he had a few thoughts to share with us, before his six fastidious—and enigmatic—waiters were forced to deal with other matters.
If Thiessen's script—and this production—is doing its job, the audience should have basically lost its appetite by the time the dessert trays come around.
Chris Milner's Lumiere is a pallid character whose knowledge of the preparation and presentation of fine food dovetails far too appropriately with childhood memories behind the scenes at the funeral home his parents ran. In mid-meal, he assures us that, if we took the moment the wilted greens, roasted red peppers and red onions on which we dined were plucked from the ground as their point of death, our meal had in fact been "dead for weeks." By extension, our chef (Sunny McDaniel) is merely a competent mortician, in her way.
These cheery thoughts are joined by similar ones as Lumiere details—poetically at times, unflinchingly at others—his version of the real goings-on back in the kitchen of life. Needless to say perhaps, given his knowledge, many of us might have well rethought our own orders.
Under C. Glen Matthews' direction, the sextet of servants (Donnis Collins, Jesse Gephart, Joel Horton, Tim Overcash, Ashlee Quinones and particularly Jaret Preston) present tableaus from Lumiere's life, including an enviable homage to Eadweard Muybridge, in a cornfield somewhere in Oklahoma.
But do Matthews and Milner always overcome Thiessen's portentous tendencies as a playwright? Perhaps not. Two or three boors in the audience repeatedly chose to impose their laughter (and mid-show commentary) on proceedings befitting a more sober countenance. It's certainly not the first time that service—a central theme, and one Thiessen returns to repeatedly—was met in some quarters with an offensive attitude of entitlement and indifference. But in this case it derailed several admittedly florid moments—and some of the most thoughtful work of the night as well. In short, another not-so-gentle object lesson that alcohol and theater don't always mix.
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.