Review by Kate Gaul
What a privilege it is to witness a local production by the great Lynn Nottage. Nottage is an American playwright with a unique voice and an impeccable record: her play “Ruined”, from 2009, about Congolese women under threat of rape and violence in the civil war, won her a Pulitzer Prize. “Sweat”, set in a bar in a decaying, deindustrialising US town, won her a second in 2017. She is the only woman to have won the Pulitzer for drama twice, which puts her in the ranks alongside Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder and August Wilson. Her work covers a wide range of subjects but is always on the side of the marginalised and dispossessed. Her breakthrough play, “Intimate Apparel”, which starred Viola Davis in its off-Broadway production in 2004, is about a black seamstress in early-20th century New York.
And now, “Clyde’s”: A truck stop greasy spoon offers its formerly incarcerated kitchen staff a shot at redemption. Even as the shop’s callous owner undermines them, the staff learn to reclaim their lives, find purpose, and become inspired to dream by their shared quest to create the perfect sandwich. In “Clyde’s” sandwiches tell stories, hold truths, and nourish dreams. What is next level is that Nottage not only creates individual characters with whom we empathise over the course of what is billed as a comedy, but she subverts familiar genres such as drawing room comedy or workplace dramas. Nottage is asking us to consider – amongst other things – which sorts of rooms and people have previously been considered worthy of our sustained attention in the theatre.
The play is set in the kitchen where so-called line cooks prepare sandwiches. Like any good drama the action is going to be about what happens between the characters (and it is). The challenge is to create a believable environment with believable business that runs alongside the ups and downs of the human story. Simone Romaniuk designs. The Ensemble stage is currently being prepared for the upcoming in-rep season of ‘Suddenly Last Summer” also designed by Romaniuk – so the company can be forgiven for a somewhat light touch on the Clyde’s kitchen accoutrements. Given that we look over the action in this theatre there really is no hiding when it comes to that sandwich making and the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen. Darren Yap seamlessly choreographs the movement around the stage, but I yearned for more detail and genuine fireworks during the busy times; the monotony of the menial day to day; and the subtle blurring of lines between battle fields as staked out in the kitchen.
“Clyde’s” is beautifully cast by Yap. Nancy Denis navigates the unforgiving Clyde with confidence. One longs for a more satisfying insight into what makes this character tick but there is the occasional hint a vulnerability behind the brashness. Sandwich visionary, Montrellous is played with charismatic integrity by Charles Allen. He is the perfect calm inside this storm of a kitchen. Gabriel Alvarado plays erstwhile bank robber Rafael. His is an exciting, exacting, and sensitive portrayal. He and Ebony Vagulans (playing Tish, battling mum convicted of robbery) conjour a heartbreaking chemisty. Both young actors impress with their intelligent, and skilled work here. Aaron Tsindos completes the cast playing white supremist Jason – all intensity hiding a heart of gold. It’s a treat seeing Aaron Tsindos in a drama which emphasises his versatility as a performer and one who never disappoints.
It's a comedy but take some tissues – the emotion grabs you hard. I wasn’t expecting to see this play at Ensemble. It’s a clash of cultures par excellence sitting at affluent Milson’s Point and taking the imaginary journey into the roadside culture of economically challenged Pennsylvania. “Clyde’s” is a sobering examination of America’s inadequate social safety net, a lack of second chances, capitalism’s facility for exacerbating racial, ethnic and class fault lines with challenging lessons to ponder closer to home. Do not miss it!!!