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Bon Appetit

Stage Coach serves up fulfilling Empty Plate

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Don't let the title fool you. There's more going on beneath this "empty plate" than meets the eye.

The long, rather ambiguous title notwithstanding, the latest Stage Coach Theatre play serves up a hearty mix of laughs and tears, as well as an eye-catching set, that will likely leave you shouting "Magnifique!" by evening's end.

Directed by Janelle K. Walters, An Empty Plate in the Café de Grand Beouf transports us to 1961 Paris, where the Kennedy family and Ernest Hemingway are the celebrities of the day, the latter quoted at length by the wealthy owner and sole patron of an elegant restaurant.

Victor--or "Monsieur" (David Mendes Priest), as his staff prefers to call him--arrives for what is presumed to be another in a long line of fine meals with "Mademoiselle" Louise (Susan LaFond), but to the staff's dismay, Monsieur comes alone. Even worse, he has no desire to eat and wishes to starve himself.

So, what's a loyal staff to do? Well, convince Monsieur that life's worth living, of course. And the best way to do that is to prepare a grand several-course meal, but only serve Monsieur an empty plate for each course, hoping the meal's description and enticing smell from the kitchen will convince him to abandon his death wish.

With each course comes further revelation about Victor's depression, as well as the unfolding of his life's story, taken down in earnest by new busboy and aspiring journalist Antoine (Jake Koeppl). Also listening with rapt attention are Chef Gaston (Kevin Labrum) and the married wait staff, Mimi and Claude (Nova Calverley and Ben Hamill), who through the course of the play all confess a few of their own insecurities to Victor.

It's an oddly compelling story that works well for the most part, allowing the audience to sneak a peek inside each character just long enough to get a sense of who they are and how they all relate to each other. Like the play's title, though, some of the dialogue seems long-winded and awkward, particularly in sections where Victor seemingly delivers narration about his background almost as an aside while most of the other characters carry on as if they don't hear him.

What does work is thankfully pretty much everything else, starting with a stellar set designed by Jerry Snodgrass, who creates a very believable subterranean French café, adorned with beautiful red curtains, stained-glass windows (actually Plexiglas and painted bubble-wrap used to beautiful effect), checkered black and white "tile," a chandelier, and even a Picasso-painted vase.

Priest paints a dapper, introspective Victor, shining the brightest later in the play where he must re-enact a bull fight in Madrid, the pinnacle moment in his relationship with Louise. It's a pivotal scene for Victor and Priest carries it off with appropriate vigor and feeling.

Calverley and Hamill delight as the bickering Mimi and Claude, particularly in the amusing opening scene which finds them busily setting up tables for the day's business. Without any dialogue, the actors manage to establish the animosity that exists between them, using only body language to establish their troubled relationship--and to often-comedic effect.

Labrum, a frequent Stage Coach player, unfortunately spends too much time offstage this time around, but still manages to convey an earnest presence, notably in solo scenes with Priest. LaFond enjoys even less stage time, but is welcome nonetheless when she finally arrives to enjoy a few tender moments with Priest.

Most enjoyable, though, is Koeppl's understated portrayal of Antoine--a stammering, tuba-playing youth who forms arguably the strongest bond with Victor. Koeppl's adeptness at pratfalls is surpassed only by his ability to convey empathy and compassion with a simple look.

An Empty Plate in the Café de Grand Beouf, by Michael Hollinger and directed for SCT by Janelle K. Walters.

March 9-12 and 16-18. Stage Coach Theatre, Hillcrest Shopping Center, Overland and Orchard. Info/tickets: 342-2000.