Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant, playing as part of Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory festival, is both a theatrical production and a four course meal. Upon welcoming the audience with song and dance, however, the performers insist theirs is not dinner theater. What, then, is it? For the downtown theater initiated, think of the sexy presentationalism of Joe's Pub retooled with the zaniness of the Neo-Futurists, sparking with the camp of Kiki and Herb and catered by your neighborhood farmer's market. For anyone made uncomfortable by the label "avant garde," go see Conni's for a warm welcome into the fold. The company of stock characters, played with equal parts earnestness and flamboyance by the Brooklyn-based Conni ensemble, sets an atmosphere of camaraderie essential to the evening of boisterous theatricality and really good food. It's hard to imagine anyone not having fun at this convivially irreverent show. From its chandeliers constructed of Christmas lights and plastic-ware to its glitzy proscenium and pastel flats, Conni's burlesques the self-seriousness of avant garde experimentalism and, at the same time, celebrates it.
Perhaps food is the production's most innovative element (which says a lot for a show that intimates women swapping pregnancies and features a costumed dog who glosses Shakespeare). Locally grown and prepared on site, all of the food is fully integrated into the play's storytelling, with each course delineating a performance act. Act 1, for example, entitled Kitchen Sink Soup, sets in motion the production's satirical plot as well as the evening's meal by producing chilled gazpacho with fresh tomatoes. Watermelon and feta salad, sandwiches on locally baked bread, pesto pasta and pound cake all follow suit. Pitchers of sangria are set on each communal audience table; a cash bar is available as well.
In using tasty food so effectively, Conni's makes clear many ways that the local food movement and independent theater are a terrific fit. Both movements aim to cultivate sustainable, self-reliant communities. Both rely on collaboration. Both celebrate delicious creation, be it of plays or tomatoes. In the case of Conni's, it's both.