In "The Toss Up," one of four lighthearted short plays about food being presented by the People's Theatre at the North Beach restaurant Peña Pachamama, a Cordon Bleu cooking team attempts to impress the judge of the annual Rabbit's Palate Salad Contest with a delicate yet robust concoction of leaves, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, fennel, and prickly-pear vinaigrette. When the team captain finds out that the judge is none other than the famous food critic who used to be her fiancé, sudden doom descends upon the kitchen: No matter how delicious the team's salad tastes, the critic's opinion of the dish cannot help but be influenced by memories of his former relationship. As chefs Elena and Les put it:
Elena: It's arguable whether we ever, in fact, taste food.
Les: Our sense of taste, in fact, all our senses, are hopelessly distorted and marred by our memories, our prejudices.
For the rest of the evening (collectively titled Theater You Can Eat), which in addition to salad included one-acts centering on coffee ("Wake Up Cup"), South American hors d'oeuvres ("Ceviche"), and chocolate ("Chocolate"), I couldn't get this brief exchange out of my head. I'm not sure I buy the sentiment; food certainly has the power to provoke intense memories in the taster. But is it really impossible to stick a bite of apple, slice of ham, or chunk of cheese in your mouth and simply — without a hint of emotional baggage — taste unadulterated Pink Lady, pancetta, or Parmesan?
As I sat in the cramped restaurant with around 20 others, watching the People's Theatre's small but sprightly ensemble cast bring local playwright John Robinson's slight but sweet foodie shorts to life, a related question crossed my mind. If the savoring of food is indeed affected by human experience, can the same be said of the savoring of theater? I decided to conduct a taste test using Robinson's comedies to explore whether it's possible to be objective about playgoing, or whether memory and prejudice cannot help but influence our perceptions. The outcome reinforced my awareness of the challenges artists face when presenting their work.
In general, the less I know about a theatrical event before I see it, the better. But after almost a decade of covering live performance in the Bay Area, my familiarity with the local scene makes this a tricky proposition. Nevertheless, I try to leave my memories of previous productions at the will call line and treat each new experience like an infant taking her first steps on crisp snow. Achieving this state for Theater You Can Eat was particularly easy: The show came with the unusual advantage of being produced, written, acted, and directed by individuals with whom I was mostly unfamiliar. All I knew going in was that I would be viewing a series of one-act plays about food in a restaurant setting, and that I could eat a meal while watching if I desired.
Despite my best efforts to remain neutral, visions of traditional dinner theater, complete with congealed gravy and collapsed-soufflé jokes, colored my impression of the production before it even started. My prejudices were reinforced when a hollowly smiling waitress ushered my friend and I to seats before telling us in a simpering voice that there would be a two-drink minimum if we failed to order dinner. I also couldn't help but wonder about the reasoning behind performing these plays in a restaurant: Site-specific theater ought to incorporate its locale in a thought-provoking way — otherwise, what's the point? I instantly recalled my outing the previous evening to see Joe Goode's iridescent dance-theater production, Traveling Light, at the Old Mint building. The choreographer brilliantly drew a parallel between his materialism-oriented theme and the faded glory of the venue, which was once a seat of high finance. Would the People's Theatre do an equally profound job of connecting Robinson's plays with the restaurant setting?
As soon as the play started, my qualms faded. I didn't order anything to eat, so I can't vouch for Peña Pachamama's Bolivian cuisine. But in terms of the quality of the performances and the playwright's words, Theater You Can Eat proved to be tasty fare. "The Toss Up" and "Chocolate" sparkle more from a textual perspective than "Ceviche" and "Wake Up Cup." Robinson possesses a warmly zany sense of humor that the actors make the most of with understated grace. But his comedic style sometimes veers into unpalatable territory. The repetitive, singsong dialogue in "Wake Up Cup" — "I have an orange, if that would help."/"An orange?"/"Yeah. This is an orange, man."/"Isn't Steve cool? He has an orange."/"Left over from their garage sale."/"I can't wait to eat this orange."/"His orange is cool."/"I'm going to peel it. Feel it, man." — is too Dr. Seuss. Less compelling than the writing is director James Reese's use of the space. Besides the fact that the plays are about food, there's little about the way they're written or the mise-en-scène that merits the restaurant setting. These shorts could be mounted in a black-box theater just as — or even more — successfully.
So it's official: Our sense of theater is indeed "hopelessly distorted and marred by our memories, our prejudices." This is a rather daunting reality for theatermakers — and chefs. At the end of the day, whether you work in a kitchen or on a stage, all you can do is put out your best work and the rest will follow. As the old Irish proverb goes, "Laughter is brightest where food is best."