The star of this fantastical show/dinner hybrid is Washington Hall, the beautiful 1908 Central District building that has hosted everything from On the Boards' fetal incarnation (in the 1980s and 1990s) to school recitals to Billie Holiday to secret societies. Cafe Nordo's newest production makes the most of the space by leading people around the twisted guts of the building—down narrow back staircases built for Americans fed on a less-generous diet than the 21st-century model, up through musty attic rooms, and into the great hall nestled in the center of the whole cozy works. It's a four-hour journey, and along the way, a play happens and a five-course meal is served in bits and starts.
Chances are your Cabinet of Curiosities experience would be different from mine: Attendees gather in a smallish entryway after checking in and are assigned, seemingly at random, to three different tour guides for the evening. My group of 18 became the charge of Samantha Mead (Keira MacDonald, blowsy and fun in 1940s tough-gal, movie- star mode), a self-described "genetic forager"—think Indiana Jones, only food-obsessed—who detailed the premise of the evening to us in a lengthy monologue. For the evening, Washington Hall had become the home of The Cabinet, a roving, magical restaurant that has existed since at least the 1500s in various iterations around the world—Italy, London, San Francisco—and has always been staffed by time-displaced loners.
Mead led us to the first course. Or at least, our first course—soup, salad, and tart dishes are delivered in different orders. We happened to ascend to the Crone Parlor, a loft decorated with knitted ropy green plants where a Wiccan from an ancient world (Aimée Bruneau) and her half-cat brother (Maximillian Davis) diagnosed us with the common modern ailment of being deaf to the sounds of the plant world (thyme, we are informed, is "a wonderful gentleman"). The cure to that sickness was a celeriac-root soup, served by the actors with a dramatic flourish—Bruneau garnished each bowl with a crush of parsley and a dollop or two of cream, both flash-frozen seconds before in a steaming cauldron of dry ice. The actors sold their dinner-theater roles with just the right amount of audience participation—no Tinkerbell clap-if-you-really-believe moments—and the soup was simple, fresh, and expertly made.
After this, a pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–style plant fanatics served a salad they called an "invasive species treat," made of fennel and a few tender, juicy butterflied chunks of rabbit; a bickering pair of Francophiles dished out a buttery mushroom tart. Between the rooms, Mead discussed infamous moments in culinary history—famous chef suicides, riots broken out during very good parties at the White House.
By the time all three groups convened to eat salmon and filet mignon at long banquet tables, just about everyone had had four glasses of wine, and thanks to the different seating arrangements in each room, everyone had sat with everyone else in their group. The great hall, then, with its family-style vats full of carrots and tureens loaded with tender, salt-roasted potatoes, felt like a boozy, warm reunion after the labyrinthine and somewhat disorienting journey around Washington Hall.
Portlandia sketches about the provenance of our chickens and florid, wordy packaging at Whole Foods may be ridiculous, but they demonstrate that we want to know the story of how our food got to our plates. Cabinet of Curiosities tweaks that desire a bit by making that story a fiction, a melodramatic fantasy yarn. Rarely is the experience of being lied to such a complete full-body pleasure.