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Cleveland Public Theatre’s Secret Social

Did you know a clandestine society makes its home on the shores of Lake Erie?

Secret Social at Cleveland Public Theatre now through Dec. 23; graphic by Sean Higgins

The 12 and 12 believe that the Grimms’ tragic 12 Dancing Princesses wasn’t just a fairytale and work to reunite the princesses and their suitors. Oh yeah, and they throw really great parties.

Earlier this week, Scott and I attended one
of their initiation ceremonies.

But don’t worry, I can share a bit of the secret rites that transpired.  Because the 12 and 12 isn’t a real secret society, but the heart of Cleveland Public Theatre’s latest undertaking – the highly immersive world-premiere
The Secret Social.

Playing now through December 23, The Secret Social is the latest brainchild from Cleveland Public Theatre and the award-winning Conni’s Avant Garde ensemble.

If you’re familiar with Cleveland Public Theatre’s work, you may have seen their previous collaboration with Conni’s during the last couple of holidays: Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant.

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Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant at Cleveland Public Theatre

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant may be a delicious mix of fine dining and theatrical insanity; however, as Conni's rule no. 7 instructs it is not dinner theatre. (photo from cptonline.org)

My friends know me well — or they at least read my blog — because they surprised me with an early Christmas present this past Saturday: 2 tickets to Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant at Cleveland Public Theatre. Regardless of whether they took a hint from ‘All I Want for Cleve-mas,’ they stumped me and found a show that wasn’t on my radar yet.

What is Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant?  Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I very briefly looked at Cleveland Public Theatre‘s site before I went, but all I knew was that it was going to be experimental theatre at its most ridiculous and I’d get a meal.  Beyond that, I planned on being surprised. 

As soon as we walked into the Cleveland Public Theatre, the fun began with us selecting a holiday persona from a tray of nametags. I chose to undertake the mantle of Ms. Mannheim Steamroller, while Scott – who loves a good pun – went with Mince ∏. The doors had opened a half hour before the show to allow guests to mingle in the lobby’s bar and sample a delicious roasted chestnuts and mushroom tartine appetizer. Hunter, one of the members of the ensemble, was our barkeep for the night, slinging beers and wine from behind the bar and sharing his opinions on the world.  Miss Goodi Two Shoes was also flitting about the pre-show party welcoming guests as would be expected of the gracious ballerina. A few moments before 7, we were greeted by a parade of all of our evening’s hosts, who laid out the rules for the night:

  1. Inside the Restaurant you are not a customer, but an invited guest of Miss Conni Convergence.
  2. There is absolutely no ordering, but you can ask for seconds.
  3. Referring to the performers as “waiters” is insulting, don’t do it.
  4. Everything in the world of the Restaurant is a set piece, backdrop, or prop.
  5. Share.
  6. What happens in the Restaurant stays in the Restaurant.
  7. And most importantly, this is not dinner theatre.

We walked into the Gordon Square Theatre where tables had been set up throughout, along with a kitchen and stage decked with the sign from Conni’s Restaurant. Although it’s nothing like your traditional dinner theatre, Conni’s Avant Garde has been hailed as a unique theatrical-culinary event mixing the ingredients of fine food, wine, and ensemble theatre that results in a loving send-up of avant-garde pomposity.

The plot of the show is fairly loose with the performers wandering throughout and a lot of improv mixed in:  It’s the holidays at Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, which isn’t a place but instead a troupe of avantgardists inspired by the legendary Miss Conni Convergence, a revolutionary teacher of the culinary performance arts. Miss Goodi Two Shoes, who aspires to be Clara in this year’s Nutcracker, is suddenly pregnant. And Mrs. Robinson, a washed-up, seemingly overconfident rocker who likes to switch pants with his dinner guests, has received what he thinks is an invitation to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, in Miss Conni’s absence, General Manager Sue James tries to keep Goodi, Mrs. Robinson and the rest of the wild crew in line with limited success.

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant answers the question “What would happen if a group of experimental theatre artists took over a roadside restaurant?” (photo from cptonline.org)

In addition to the crazy cabaret, improv comedy, nudity, death and violence, guests are treated to a five-course home-cooked meal and bottles of wine.  Using local ingredients (most of which came from West Side Market’s The Basketeria), the performers originate, cook and serve the meal.  Every course is prepared and served via a musical number (Goodi’s mysterious impregnation during the soup course was very entertaining). Because of this, the food becomes part of the source material for the evening’s performance.

Besides being thoroughly entertaining, the meal was delicious. In addition to the roasted chestnuts and mushroom tartine, we were treated to a curried butternut squash soup; herbed apple and fennel salad; maple-glazed ham with cranberry compote, brown-buttered radishes and sage-roasted sweet potatoes; and drunken chocolate bundt cake.  My favorite dishes were the soup and the radishes that accompanied the ham. I’m a sucker for butternut squash but the extra kick from the curry elevated this soup and the freshly baked bread they served was an excellent complement.  Also, prior to Conni’s, my radish experience had been limited to raw in a salad, so the tender radishes surprised me — I need to have them more often.

After seeing Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, I was curious about the backstory behind the concept and did some browsing through their website. While in residence for a production of As You Like It in coastal Maine, a group of actors fantasized about moving into an abandoned area diner called “Conni’s Restaurant.” With this, a running joke of “What would happen if a group of experimental theatre artists took over a roadside restaurant?” was born. For the last few years they’ve been finetuning and expanding the concept in New York – being awarded a grant in 2009 to build a theatre company on the model of a food business. Although the majority of Conni’s performers hail from NY, the Cleveland production ‘Feast of Miracles‘ also featured local talent including four actresses who played the Nurses and Chef Chef Bon Bon who oversaw the meal and provided the delicious bread and Bundt Cake via her Gordon Square Bonbon Bake Shop.

This was the first time I had a seen a production at Cleveland Public Theatre, though I knew about them as one of three organizations at the heart of the Gordon Square Arts District revitalization.  Known for producing adventurous and experimental theatre, CPT was the perfect place to hold the Midwest premiere of Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. CPT’s emphasis on supporting new artists and non-mainstream works is what Conni’s is about — both in the content of the performance as well as the origination of the concept. 

Sadly, Conni’s closed its sold-out Cleveland run on Sunday so that they could return to New York to continue serving their delicious mix of insanity and fine food.  However, Clevelanders don’t need to fear for a lack of challenging, new theatre since CPT’s 2010-2011 season picks back up with the Big [BOX] ’11 Series on January 14. With 10 more pieces on this year’s schedule, CPT will be busy until June when they end the season with their original production Cut to Pieces, a solo show that blends live video feed, film, and animation. 


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Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

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