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BWW Reviews: Feast On THE BIG MEAL At Zeitgeist Stage Company

The Big Meal

Written by Dan LeFranc; Direction/Set Design, David J. Miller; Costume Design, Elizabeth Cole Sheehan; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Stage Manager, Kayla Morello

CAST: Peter Brown, Shelley Brown, Devon Scalisi, Becca A. Lewis, Johnny Quinones, Ashley Risteen, Alec Shiman, Arianna Reith, Josh Clary

Performances through March 7 at Zeitgeist Stage Company, Plaza Black Box Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com

A word of advice about going to see The Big Meal, the Boston area premiere of Dan LeFranc's play about the interactions of five generations of an extended family: eat first. For ninety minutes, the action plays out at a series of nameless restaurants in the Midwest, where every occasion is an excuse to eat or drink, to celebrate or seek distraction from the circumstances which have brought the characters together, be it a first date, Thanksgiving, a birth, or someone's last supper. If the setting alone doesn't make you hungry, you'll work up an appetite keeping pace with the blink-of-an-eye time shifts, the overlapping dialogue, and the continuous reassignment of roles among the actors.

The Big Meal is the kind of play that Zeitgeist Stage Company and Artistic Director David J. Miller feast upon - a character-driven ensemble piece that showcases the range of the actors, as well as Miller's ability to transfer the playwright's vision from the page to the stage. In this case, it is no small challenge as LeFranc's script is laid out in a landscape format with eight columns on every page, one for each actor in the scene. Stage directions indicate that it is the director's job to conduct the cast as if it were an orchestra, and Miller is the maestro creating an uninterrupted flow from meal to meal, decade after decade, covering fifty years of little slices of life. With assistance from lighting cues (Michael Clark Wonson), periodic costume changes (Elizabeth Cole Sheehan), and atmospheric sound snippets (J Jumbelic), Miller clearly maps out the parallel journeys, leaving no one behind.

Eight actors portray twenty-six characters, although several of them are the same person at different stages of life. For example, the central female Nicole is played by Ashley Risteen (young woman), Becca A. Lewis (woman), and Shelley Brown (older woman), and the central male Sam is represented from young to old by Johnny Quinones, Devon Scalisi, and Peter Brown. Arianna Reith (Girl) and Alec Shiman (Boy) (both making their Zeitgeist Stage debuts) are the children in the families and Josh Clary amazingly never ages as the lone waiter in all of the restaurants. Zeitgeist regulars Brown and Brown go together like hand in glove in each of their couplings, and Lewis and Scalisi are convincing as they navigate the ups and downs of long-marrieds. Quinones is new to Zeitgeist, but conforms readily to the aesthetic. Risteen takes top honors for differentiating the five women she portrays, with honorable mention for steadily sashaying around in stiletto heels.

Coincidently, another of LeFranc's plays is being staged upstairs in the Calderwood Pavilion by Bridge Rep through the end of February. In Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, he explores a narrower familial bond, that of father and son, but also in a longitudinal, albeit nonlinear, view. LeFranc's gift is his ability to write authentic dialogue and capture what it feels like in the moment of an event or conversation. The overlap can be a little confusing, but, just like at your own dinner table, you don't really need to hear every word to know what's going on. (In fact, turning a deaf ear to some of what's being said may prevent indigestion.) The takeaway from The Big Meal is that all of the little ordinary, everyday events are the substance of life when served with food and family and, to quote a famous Greek, "Ars longa, vita brevis."

Photo Credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Shelley Brown, Peter Brown, Ashley Risteen, Arianna Reith, Devon Scalisi, Johnny Quinones, and Becca A. Lewis)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman