Before An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf began its opening performance, Silver Spring Stage Chairperson Bill Hurlbut spoke to the spectators. He happily announced that this was Silver Spring’s largest audience since resuming live performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, then he shared some sadder news: the theater’s space is undergoing major construction in the spring, and therefore certain productions in their season have been canceled. His message, packaging good news and optimism together with the difficult realities facing many community theaters right now, set a tone of hope that permeated the show to follow.
The entirety of An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf takes place in the titular café, and from the first scene, we are greeted with the people who run the restaurant: Claude, the maître d’; Antoine, the waiter in training; Mimi, seeming sommelier and waitress; and Gaston, the established chef. We find out that they await the arrival of their loyal customer and benefactor, Victor, or “monsieur,” who frequents the cafe with his love, “mademoiselle.” When Victor finally does appear, though, he is alone, returning from the bullfights in Madrid, and he reveals he plans to kill himself by sitting at his table until he starves to death. The staff responds the only logical way: endeavoring to dissuade him by cooking up the most delectable, coursed meal, which they do not serve to Victor. Instead, they bring out a series of empty bowls and plates while describing each delicacy verbally. In the interim, Victor gets to narrate his life story to the staff at the empty café.
This premise is more than a bit questionable and made only slightly more understandable by the fact that the play was written in 1994. Its dated nature shows itself elsewhere in throwaway incidences of anti-Algerian sentiment and myopic perspectives given to the priorities of non-cis-males. These issues, though, become more interesting when the show is read as entirely farcical. As the show goes on, there is enough preposterousness that it is easy to start reading things that way. Guns are pulled, wives threaten to leave, melodicas are played earnestly and loudly. Even Victor’s misery about having no family, no legacy, and no one to listen to him functions as a joke when the audience realizes he is paying staff at a cafe to listen to him. With the plot twists at the end of the play, his plight feels even more ridiculous, meant to poke fun at what feels like a particularly masculine way of needing to be seen and heard. When looked at from this absurdist lens, the show feels wholly relevant and hysterical, so it is easy to see why Silver Spring would choose to feature it in their season.
That’s why it was surprising to see that this production seemed to take a different route. Instead of tapping into the absurdity, this iteration chose earnestness and hope. The ensemble cast plays their characters with commitment and diligence; they do not play anyone in the bombastic way they could based on the script. Stephanie Yee (Mimi) plays the restless character with sweetness and pep, and Fletcher Lowe (Antoine) does similarly, portraying him with enthusiasm and touching gravitas. Brendan Murray as the chef Gaston is the most grounded of the bunch, with a sincerity and sense of being present with his fellow actors that makes him all the more comedic. Alex Diaz-Ferguson (Claude) is delightful to watch zooming in and out of the kitchen doors, playing up the camp of the script at just the right moments, so we see the hilarity in Claude’s meticulousness, but also the heart underneath. Brian Lyons-Burke has his work cut out for him with the suffering journalist and patron, Victor, but he rises to the occasion with great commitment. Finally, Jenny Gleason is wonderful as Miss Berger. She is extremely natural and grounded, and I do wish the play had more of her in it.
The set (Bill Dunbar) is lovely, minimalist with certain touches that signal great attention to detail, like the small writing of “sortir” and “entrer” on the swinging kitchen doors. Sound design (Jeff Goldgeier) is similar, with ambient noise playing when the café doors open, but much else left to the imagination. Costumes (Stephanie Yee) and makeup (Stephen Welsh) are perfect for the atmosphere of the restaurant, so much so that the characters feel of a specific period, but also timeless in their own right. Truly, all technical elements seem to draw our focus to the characters alone, to their relationships and the zest for life the play wants to inspire, through problematic means or not.
In her director’s note, Karen Fleming talks about the longing this play communicates. She specifically ties it to how we have longed for “life as it once was” in the midst of a global pandemic. Though it sacrifices much of the absurdity, Fleming’s choice to focus on that yearning, that hopefulness inherent in feeling seen and heard, communicates as much about Silver Spring Stage itself as it does about humans and longing. Together, she and Hurlbut make it clear that Silver Spring Stage, whether through a pandemic, cancellations, or construction, will continue to rely on that hopefulness, and persevere like the bull.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
COVID Safety: Masks are required. See Silver Spring Stage’s compleste COVID-19 Protocols here.
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Karen Fleming
Produced by Jackie Williams
Victor – Brian Lyons-Burke
Claude – Alejandro Diaz-Ferguson
Mimi – Stephanie Yee
Gaston – Brendan Murray
Antoine – Fletcher Lowe
Miss Berger – Jenny Gleason