Friday, April 30, 2010



by Chuck Graham

Let the Show Begin

Hold the food puns for a minute and let’s be serious. Roberto Guajardo gives another wonderful over-the-top performance at Invisible Theatre in “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf.” What a season he is having. From the multiple characters in “Leaving Iowa” last autumn to the crazily colorful Pancho Villa last winter, to the suicidal gourmet in the recently-opened black comedy “Empty Plate.”

There hasn’t been a time that I can remember in Tucson theater when a local actor gave three exceptional performances in one season.

As for “Empty Plate,” this quirky play by Michael Hollinger almost defies description. There’s food, of course, and descriptions of gourmet dishes that would make a menu writer’s jaw drop in awe.

Succulent adjectives of every texture and flavor lace the script as the chef and maitre d’ extol the scintillating virtues of each new offering from the world class kitchen of the Café du Grand Boeuf.

But there is also suicide. Guajardo plays Victor the severely depressed billionaire who plans to end it all slowly and with contemplation by starving to death while dictating the story of his life to the waiter Antoine (Brad Kula), dutifully sitting at the next table with note pad and pencil.

In this metaphorical world, Victor owns a tiny restaurant with three tables and one customer – himself. No one else may dine here at the Cafe du Grand Boeuf.

Staffing the ultra-exclusive establishment are the chef Gaston (David Alexander Johnston), the maitre‘d Claude (Sean Dupont) and the waiter Mimi (Carrie Hill).

According to Victor’s instructions the staff must be ready at all times to serve any dish Victor requests.

Could there ever be such an elaborate dining arrangement for any billionaire any where? Probably not, but it does sort of sound like something Howard Hughes would do.

But with the four staffers having such cushy jobs, it is easy to imagine their panic one evening when a moribund Victor announces he is going to commit suicide. These desperate employees run through all the stages of grief ranging from anger to acceptance.

At Claude’s insistence the staff will prepare a glorious seven course meal in the kitchen, but they won’t serve it to Victor. Instead, these vigilant loyalists will bring out an empty plate, and then describe the epicurean creation that would be on the plate if Victor wasn’t so determined to commit suicide.

Victor, of course, must agree to savor every word. Reluctantly, he agrees…which sets the play in motion. A play about death must, of course, also be a play about life. And for life to continue there must be food.

So far, so good. Hollinger the playwright loves word play as well as the overblown literary striving so often associated with the menus that accompany such elegant dining. The word play is fun for the actors as well as the audience.

There are also a number of quotable lines worthy of becoming bumper stickers. “Appetite is hunger combined with hope” says one.

Victor made his money in journalism, which does date the play a bit (it was written in the 1990s and set in Paris in 1961). So think of“Empty Plate” as a historical drama linking journalism, Hemingway, the lack of literary imagination in writing obituaries, the pageantry of bull fights and many wonderful descriptions of food.

Underneath the deathly humor is an insistence on the powerful drive to survive and thrive. Even though Victor sees no reason to live any longer, those around him see lots of reasons to keep on living.

Performances of “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf” continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, to May 16 at Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. Tickets are $22-$25 general admission; rush tickets one hour before curtain (when available). For reservations and details, 882-9721, or visit