Artistic audacity should never be punished. Better to aim high and fail spectacularly than shoot for mediocrity and succeed. Reviews and word of mouth had led me to believe that Cafe Nordo productions are made in this spirit—bizarre dinner/theater hybrids that inspire love, hate, and bewilderment. Sadly, their latest show is dinner theater as we already know it: half-baked on both fronts, without meaningful integration of the two.
SMOKED! is marketed as an homage to the genre-defining spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, best known for the Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Ray Tagavilla gamely invokes Clint Eastwood's stoic, irreverent stranger, riding into a troubled town in the grip of a big bad boss, but the script misunderstands what makes Eastwood's nameless character such a delight. The Man with No Name always finds a way to align his self-interest with the broad moral good, making his motives intriguingly unclear. Is he a savior or just a mercenary? Tagavilla's version hits the first few beats all right: He lets the townspeople exposition-dump their plight, remarks that there's money to be made, and pretends not to take a side. In the end, however, he saves the town purely out of a sense of injustice, and money isn't made. He's just a boring, straightforward hero. That the big bad boss sells genetically engineered produce and pesticides is presented with such science-fiction hyperbole and strained anachronism ("Seeds engineered like a gun"), it brings to mind Cowboys & Aliens more than Monsanto. He remains unseen, represented onstage by his lackeys—the corrupt, yellow-bellied sheriff, the mad-dog enforcer, and the second-in-command who holds the leash. Kate Hess, as the enforcer, was the most fun to watch, bringing a sparkly, girlish quality to her unstable sadism (akin to Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill); the rest of the seven-person cast was forced to spend much of the show glowering earnestly at one another.
Moving the spaghetti western into low-budget theater is, predictably, problematic. The beatings and barn burnings have to happen offstage, and the long pauses are tedious without the whiplash close-ups of Eastwood's scowl. An equally predictable issue: Replacing rice with sunflower seeds will make a risotto awfully rich, and sunflower seeds are not at their best texture when simmered in liquid. Two of the dishes elicited actual pain. The spring vegetable "spaghetti" (read: coleslaw) came with mozzarella "meatballs" rolled in powdered olives, a combination so salty it hurt. The smoked alfalfa-hay popcorn was impressive only from a scientific standpoint, as each kernel carried such an intense cigarette-smoke sensation that it stung the lungs. Salt was an ongoing problem: The dessert consisted of a thin layer of rhubarb, seemingly sugarless, buried by salty biscuit dough and served with a side of smoked-salt fennel whipped cream—sweet and savory without the sweet. The highlight of the meal was an oxtail chili, which tasted a lot like the cheap borscht that comes with lunch at any Hong Kong–style cafe in North America.
I could forgive all of this if SMOKED! had been truly ambitious and weird, another of Nordo's medium-bending events that have frustrated and thrilled critics in the past. But aside from a few in-character lines of banter from the servers/actors, it was just scenes from an okayish play alternating with the courses of a disappointing dinner. You know, dinner theater.