Conni’s Avant-Garde Restaurant: A Snowball’s Chance is not your stodgy trip to the dinner theater. Like a surreal Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, the production features a five-course meal dished up by performers playing kooky, well-developed characters — aging diva contemplating motherhood Muffin Character Hanshake, say, or Lady T Rose, an R&B crooner helping Muffin make it through. “We wanted to ask the question, ‘What would it be like if a group of avant-garde theater artists ran a restaurant?’ ” says director Cynthia Croot. “You might have your salad served by people who just finished an elaborate dance.”
This is Cleveland Public Theatre’s fourth production of a Conni’s show since 2014, a series of oddball dinner theater performances that originally premiered off-Broadway in 2006. Running through Dec. 22, this year’s show includes cabaret, dance routines, game show-esque competitions and more, paired alongside a five-course, locally sourced meal prepared and served by the performers. As is the Conni’s way, expect plenty of au courant cultural references, especially when it comes to local news. “We’re thinking not just about how to delight you, but also how to connect with you as a community,” Croot says. Before you tie on your bib, Croot shares three tips for making the most of your trip to this radical restaurant.
Don’t stress over your seat. The line between performer and audience is blurred here. Actors move around the room while serving and performing, much like staff navigate tables in a real eatery. “The opportunity to engage with them in conversation, the opportunity to learn more about their histories and their relationship to the restaurant, is really unique,” Croot says. There are no rows of seats here; instead, you’ll be seated upon arrival at one of the 10-seat long tables, separated by a large center aisle where the majority of the choreographed action takes place. “There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Croot says.
Be sure to bring a big appetite. The hearty meal dished up by Conni’s Avant-Garde Restaurant is served family-style, and boasts locally sourced food prepared under the guidance of local chefs. This time around, the production has enlisted Ashley Davenport of Davenport’s Divine Delicacies. “Much to our delight, we have discovered that he has a bit of a theater background himself,” Croot adds. “You might even see him do a little something with the actors.” Croot recommends people save room for dessert: a delicacy dubbed “drunken chocolate Bundt cake,” named for the bourbon-infused whipped cream dolloped on the side.
Audience participation is completely optional. For those who are shy around strangers or get nervous being in front of crowds, rest easy. Although there is a moment when audiences might be literally in the performance — ”I’ll just put it this way: If we think you might get wet, we’ll give you something to protect you,” Croot shares — nobody is forced to participate in any aspect of the show. “You can tailor the experience to your level of comfort,” she says. “We ask for a volunteer from each table at one point, but you can certainly choose not to volunteer and someone else at your table can do that.”