Chicago Theatre Review
The Van Gogh Cafe
Adapted and cooked up by Filament Theater
The Community Tavern of Portage Park is a capable, cultured place. Its white walls, wooden seats and tables, delicate chandeliers give an impression of sophisticated without ostentation, closeness without discomfort. It the very picture of epicurean proficiency: bidding you concentrate on your food and your company. It is surprising then that, under the direction of it’s cross-the-street naighbor Filament Theater, it should transform so utterly from an upright Chicago Eatery to the Van Gogh Cafe of Flowers, Kansas, eponymous stage of Cynthia Rylant’s collection of happenstances. Director Julie Ritchey, using Andrew J. Lampl’s concise and clever adaptation, cooks up magic in the Community and wonder in us, while her co-pilot, executive chef Joey Beato, creates a scrumptious, five course meal around the meals of the novel.
The story of the Van Gogh Cafe, the heart of a small Kansas town, that was once a theater and had the magic of so many opening nights mixed into its boards, is purchased and run by Marc (Jose Nateras) and his ten year old daughter Clara (Aissa Guerra). Confronted by the strangeness the Cafe creates, and attracts, Marc and Clara do their best to be kind and courteous and look after their customers, such as Judy (the jubilant Kristina Loy) and easily flustered Ray (Alex Ireys), or their mysterious visitors as a lithesome lady in lace (Lindsey Dorcus) and a genteel gentleman with a gentle air (Rejinal Simon) and care for the place they have come to call home.
Nateras ever smiling wonder as Marc, whether befuddled, bewitched, or beguiled by his Cafe, never flags in his electric energy or dreamy wonderment. Guerra carries herself with the surety natural in children and a delightful delight in all aspects of the wonder it curates. Clara believes, wholeheartedly and levelheadedly, in the magic of the Cafe, and her belief kindles that same belief in us too.
To transform a restaurant into a theater (in a story about a theater that has become a restaurant), Ritchey cultivates a playfulness, sweeping us along as benevolent possums dangle from the light fixtures and wayward seagulls snatch up our pita bread, as the cast creates epic spectacles though the simplest of devices. Not to break the snugness of the story, at a critical point in each of the five chapters, the cast will dash to pep music to laden our tables with Beato’s creations: from an upright and honest Sweet Corn Blueberry Muffin, to a sumptuous smoke vegetable club popping with the pizzazz a fried chili cream cheese, to a blissful Lemon Meringue Pie.
Any direction might produce a new wonder and the elastic excitability of the cast as they gasp, gape, and aww, while always introducing a moment, in every story, of stillness and gratitude to live in a world where such ordinary miracles might happen. Lampl has tweaked the script just enough so that it is firmly rooted in the Community (both literal and metaphorical), reminding us that we could find the Magic of the Van Gogh Cafe anywhere, from a cool and capable restaurant to a plucky, rolled-up-sleeves storefront theater, from the parks of Chicago, to the wide plains of Kansas, where anything seems possible. You feel welcome, well fed in body and soul, and a part of a bright and shining world that is nothing short of magical.
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Community Tavern, 4038 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60641(reached by Bus 80, Irving Park)
$45 tickets for adults, $30 for children (includes cost of dinner)
Recommended for children 8+ and up.
Tickets and waitlist available at Filament Theater.org
For more information on this and other shows visit theaterinchicago.com