A True Existential Comedy – A review of Ristorante Immortale

Note: Ristorante Immortale by Familie Flöz was one of the international theatre productions at the recently concluded The Hindu Metroplus TheatreFest 2007.

The group: Familie Flöz
The play: Ristorante Immortale
The place: Music Academy, Chennai
The time: A sultry Saturday evening on August 11, 2007.

Sometimes we forget that theatre can be performed without words as well. Familie Flöz’s Ristorante Immortale all the way from Berlin reminded us just that. Using elements from diverse theatrical traditions as commedia dellarte, l’arte della pantomima, the masque, and absurd theatre, director Michael Vogel created a physical comedy of exquisite performances. Each character’s story was told with amazing detailing. And words were not needed at all! A shake of the shoulder, a nod of the head spoke volumes. Was it my imagination or did I really see myriad expressions in those masks?

Exaggeration was endemic to the performance but for once it was not out of place. Underlying such comedy were ‘Immortale’ themes like alienation, lost love and youth, yearning for artistic recognition, lost dreams and hopes, the relationship between generations, and the eternal wait for something meaningful to happen. A true existential comedy, if there is such a genre!

What was interesting was that each character had a personal prop, which showed something about the character. The irascible chef with her accordion, the meticulous manager with his bell, the rickety old waiter with his much-traveled trunk, the restless young waiter with his flower, and the narcissistic waiter with his silver tray. Each prop showed something about the character.

I found myself imagining the dialogues in my head such was the force of acting. All other elements, sets, props, clothes, were minimalist as if to highlight the richness of the acting.

Comedy thrives on timing; needless to say, their timing was spot on. The audience responded enthusiastically with laughter. (The guy who sat next to me laughed at all the things I didn’t, which means the play gave different things to different people.) Laughter without pathos makes the play frothy and without depth. Think about Chaplin, and you will know what I mean. So a bit of the downside of life is also explored in the play. I found layers and layers of meaning and many arresting images to carry away with me.

Every character had its own back story, which gave depth to the characters and their motivations and this is what raised them from being mere stereotypes, even though that’s where it all starts from.

The structure of the play was linear with no divisions into acts or scenes. At least, no divisions in the traditional sense. The scenes were fluid one moving into the other effortlessly. This meant that for 90 minutes, the actors were constantly on stage doing something or the other, either together or solo. From the story told, I could make out some rough divisions.

The play started with the chef’s solo accordion performance much before the sets were revealed to the audience. You could call this the prologue. Then began the first scene. The first scene was of the old waiter’s unsuccessful attempt to leave the restaurant every night.

The second scene (again, my division) revealed the daily routine of the restaurant. As soon as the old waiter puts his weathered trunk beside a chair, and feeds the birds at dawn, he is joined by the narcissistic waiter, who loves to check his reflection on any shiny surface especially the silver tray and later the bell. (More about the bell later.) They are joined by the young restless waiter who is hopeless at his job but ever eager to learn. The dynamics between these three are enough to make the entire hall laugh. They run, play, laugh, pull each other’s legs, and share a common fear of the Meticulous Manager. (Henceforth, to be referred to as MM.)

The MM comes in everyday to do three things: (1) Ask the chef to change the menu to attract people to the restaurant. In vain because the chef bangs the sliding window on his face; (2) Ring a bell to call his staff – the three waiters – who then proceed to regale him with different towel routines, accompanied by the chef/accordionist and (3) Check the preparations are in order to welcome the guests of the restaurant. Guests who never turn up.

When the preparations are finally made after much suspender-changing, towel-banging, flower-keeping, dish-cleaning, running, mopping, and dancing, no one comes in. The body language of the actors is so precise that even the audience gears up to see who will come into the restaurant. There is a Waiting-for-Godot-ish moment before things resume their own momentum. Scene two comes to a close as the MM walks up the stairs to – I assume – his private quarters. In a move of sheer directorial brilliance, the MM’s climb up the stairs takes place off-stage. It is indicated by the way the waiters follow his progress up the steps with a corresponding staccato movement of their heads. Such little details add to the overall veneer of the performance.

The third scene was the back story of the young hopeless waiter who gets up late everyday and is perpetually in trouble with the MM. As another day dawns on the restaurant, he brings a bunch of flowers to the MM. This makes the other waiters jealous. To top it all, that day he impresses the MM with an improvised towel routine. The other two waiters feel rather threatened so they scheme together to bring MM’s recent favorite down. He is asked to hold a clothesline right above his head. Higher, higher, they keep telling him. After a while, his hands start shaking so he uses a handy broom inside a basket to prop up the clothesline. But to get this setup in position he has to climb into the basket and accidentally ends up sitting inside the washing basket kept on the table. Being a creative and sensitive soul, he is given to flights of fancy. He fishes out an oar-like prop from the same basket and imagines that he is rowing a boat on the vast sea. The other two waiters pretend to carry out their duties by hanging out the other clothes to dry. In reality, they end up egging him on. Suddenly, the MM appears out of nowhere to see his recent favourite sitting inside the washing basket atop a table in the middle of the restaurant! The other two waiters have disappeared. All hell breaks loose. After chasing the culprit, MM catches and pummels him with the same oar-prop. The other two waiters pretend to sympathize with our hopeless waiter. What follows next is one of the most magical scenes of the play. Our creative soul dreams up a mother (almost like the Virgin Mary) who appears to grow out of the white tablecloth to take him in her arms and console him. She disappears as suddenly as he appears leaving the audience breathless.

Next, he finds his multiple selves appear out of nowhere and do all the different duties of the restaurant. I found his scene to be very psychologically realistic. His multiple selves run the show betraying his innermost need to control his environment rather than be controlled by it. I assume that these are dreams because the fantastical element of the show is not separated from the realistic by any such obvious markers. As soon as the hopeless waiter’s dream is over, we have got to know out character rather well. On the surface, nothing has changed and another day starts all over again.

The fourth scene starts with the regular restaurant routine. This time, our narcissistic waiter reveals his motivations to us. The narcissistic waiter dreams – or daydreams – that he will one day be the owner of his restaurant. The bell is the MM’s precious prop. Only the MM touches it not anyone else. But during the narcissistic waiter’s dream, a doppelgänger appears on stage to hand him “the bell.” He then proceeds to lord over the restaurant including making the staff –and MM- play musical chairs! In another inspired scene, we see that though the new manager wants his staff to play musical chairs, his staff don’t seem to be that keen. But that doesn’t affect the narcissistic waiter’s enjoyment of the game. All he wanted to do was win. One by one his staff drop out either out of lack of interest or arthritic pain. So he does end up winning the game. Scene four comes to an end as his reverie is broken and the routine of the restaurant continues.
Scene five tells us the story of the MM. At the end of another day of waiting for guests to arrive, the MM feels rather dejected. He decides to put the bell away. This is very worrying news for his staff. So they make a plan to bring things to normal. After all, what’s a boss for if he doesn’t boss over and moves around more like a wet towel? So, the three waiters and the chef disguise themselves as traveling musicians to cheer up the manager. In a play of supreme farce, this plan fails. As the MM calls the chef (knocks on her sliding window to the kitchen), there is no answer, which puzzles him. Obviously he doesn’t know that his chef is sitting outside with a brown mustache and accordion pretending to be a traveling musician! So the waiters try to juggle between being guests and waiters to hilarious effect. They are discovered soon which gives us another chance to see the actors orchestrate their entry and exits almost like a dance past the swinging doors.
Scene six brings us the story of the rickety old waiter. He tries to leave the restaurant again by taking his much-scratched tin trunk. But then he remembers that he had come into this very restaurant as a jaunty young man, many many years ago when he had no knee or back pain and could walk briskly. He remembers the restaurant’s heydays when glamorous people visited it. One of whom – a striking woman in red – catches his eye. They dance the tango in a supremely romantic setting. But she leaves soon. Today he has neither love nor hope. The memory of the woman releases something within him finally giving him the strength to leave. But he leaves his trunk behind on the table.

 

When scene seven unfolds, it is a solemn day for the restaurant. As the everyday routine resumes in the restaurant, one by one they notice that something is amiss – the old waiter is not in his position. They decide to find out by moving beyond the restaurant. One by one they take the plunge leaving their personal props – flower, tray, bell – on the table. All except the accordion, which continues playing throughout this scene, till the bittersweet end. [Aside: If this was a movie, a close up of the props would be the last scene.] The last to go is the accordionist/chef playing another solo piece, which could be seen as the epilogue. As they leave, they are all released from their everyday routines. There is no answer as to where they have gone. And this openendedness is what gives the play its tantalizing aspect.

The restaurant is a metaphor for life. To leave it one had to either leave it forever or stay on and play by the rules of the restaurant. All of us have out roles to play in it. Though we may want to leave it, it might not be always possible. Our hopes, desires are all tied up with the restaurant. It might seem petty to the others outside the restaurant but the restaurant is all there is to the people in it. They hate it and love it with equal ardor. Without the restaurant, the people would seem to be without context. And we all need a context to live.

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One thought on “A True Existential Comedy – A review of Ristorante Immortale

  1. The other day my feed reader told me that AFJ was back in action on the blogosphere. Yesterday, I was delighted by a deluge of comments. Feels like the old days. Aren’t we getting lazy?

    Though I have a liking for the theatre (did a little inconsequential acting, directing and scripting too) here I hardly go to watch any plays, though the city’s hub of drama activities would be hardly six kilometres from my place.

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