Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Cafe
Gremlin Theatre / Collide Theatrical Dance Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Photo by Sarah Bauer
Gremlin Theatre, whose storytelling panache is consistently eloquent, and Collide Theatrical Dance Company, whose storytelling takes the form of exuberant physicality, teamed up to create and present The Cafe, sadly for one weekend only. The show was performed in the parking lot to the east of Gremlin's home-base playhouse at Vandalia Tower in Saint Paul's Midway neighborhood. Following pandemic protocols, audience members were required to wear masks and parties were seated six or more feet apart. There were no print programs or tickets—hence, no passing paper back and forth. It worked beautifully and safely, and the result was a delightful, frothy bubble that fizzed with sly humor and simmers with sensuality.

The Cafe takes place in an unnamed night spot offering beverages, dancing, and possibilities of finding partners, breaking with partners, and finding themselves. There is no spoken dialogue. The scenes were presented totally through movement—primarily by way of character-driven choreography created by the ensemble, but also through gestures and posturing of those characters while seated at bistro tables, standing on the edge of the dance floor, or leaning up at the bar. Two years ago, Collide partnered with History Theatre in their original dance-centric play Dance Till You Drop, set in a depression era dance marathon, displaying their gift for advancing a narrative through their chosen medium. Collide has also devised productions of such weighty fare as Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Cafe is a much lighter offering, but it does provide a simple story line devised by Peluso, of a heat-filled night at the titular watering hole. The first couple we meet reveals a fella trying to persuade the gal he is with to commit to him, but she resists. Later, she and another customer at the cafe catch one another's eyes, and in the course of the evening discover the direction they are meant to pursue. A man on his own and a woman working as a server share a spark that eventually ignites. Another man tries desperately to win back his girlfriend after being unfaithful to her. Eventually, everyone seems to resolve their yearnings. Such is the way of the night at steamy nightspots like this cafe.

The music, all prerecorded, draws from a range of songs, most from the past two decades along with some old standards given updated arrangements. Noël Coward's "Let's Misbehave" sounded like it was just cut last month. After opening with a full throttle "Let's Go" that introduces the company, most of the songs match lyrics and sensibility to the story arc, with good use of such numbers as "Call Me, Maybe," "The Other Woman" and "I Believe in a Thing Called Love."

Ostensibly, the show is set in the roaring '20s, and the four women were dressed in glittery shimmery flapper style dresses, wearing feathered headbands, dangly bracelets, and choker necklaces, very 1920s, drawn from Collide's costume collection. The men, however, seemed to be attired off a page from a recent Esquire magazine, without a hint of nostalgia. Scenery was nonexistent, with the show performed in front of Vandalia Tower's brick wall, with only a pair of bistro tables and a bar to let us know we were in a drinking establishment.

The collaboratively devised choreography did draw on a bit of Charleston and other steps of the era, and there were a couple of featured tap-dance spots (one solo, one paired), but these throwback styles melded into more recent theater dance forms. Most of the scenes featured paired dances, but there were a few solo spots, and several exuberant group dances. Between the crosshatching of music, dance, and fashion between periods a hundred years apart, we were led to believe that the brand of action at The Cafe had been part of human nature for a long time, unlikely to leave us anytime soon.

The attractive ensemble all performed beautifully as they wordlessly etched characters, created believable relationships with their fellow performers, and executed the lively choreography with grace and unflagging energy. The cast comprised Rush Benson, Jarod Boltjes, Heather Brockman, Renee Guittar, Patrick Jeffrey, Betsy Nelson, Regina Peluso, and Chelsea Rose, with not a false step or gesture among them. Stand outs were Chelsea Rose as the woman who discovers her desire for another woman as gradual but unmistakably blossoming in the light of a new possibility, and Jarod Boltjes as the man whose heart is set afire by his encounter with Regina Peluso as the sweet and good-humored waitress. Heather Brockman also scored especially well as a woman who knows exactly what she is looking for, but no one on stage disappointed.

The area of the parking lot set aside as a make-shift stage was well illuminated by strings of colored lights, which also added to the nightclub atmosphere, and spotlights mounted on towers at either side of the stage, with Gremlin's stalwart Carl Schoenborn designing the lighting. The uncredited sound design enabled the recorded music to be easily and clearly heard in the open air space, even with a bit of ambient noise.

As with the previous live theater offering I attended in this season of coronavirus, The Cafe was brief, coming in at about fifty minutes—which avoided the need for an intermission jam at the restrooms—but it packed a large dose of theatricality into its compact package, performed with elan and providing the cheering audience with an infusion of the joy of live performance which, with all due respect to the array of terrific stuff I have seen on Zoom, is irreplaceable.

The Cafe, a co-production of Collide Theatrical Dance Company and Gremlin Theater, was presented on September 25 and 26, 2020, outside the Gremlin Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Conceived by: Regina Peluso; Choreography: the ensemble; Costumes from Collide Dance Theatre stock; Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.

Cast: Rush Benson, Jarod Boltjes, Heather Brockman, Renee Guittar, Patrick Jeffrey, Betsy Nelson, Regina Peluso and Chelsea Rose.