by Kimberly Wadsworth · August 11, 2014
Okay – I honestly did get the symbolism behind everything in COFFEE and BISCUIT. I get why Nora (Zoe Farmingdale) is the only fully human member of the cast, and why every other character is a puppet, controlled via onstage puppeteers a la Avenue Q. I get why Nora is periodically turned into a puppet herself, her limbs manipulated and forcibly controlled by a completely mute man (Michael Racioppa), who lingers onstage constantly observing the action. I get why the other performers also sometimes pop up holding “television screens” in front of themselves to chirp out perky ads, commenting on the action of the play, and I also get why the action is also periodically interrupted with a woman’s voice offering advice on “How To Be The Perfect Housewife.”
What I didn’t get is why this one play needed all of that.
Based on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, COFFEE and BISCUIT is set in mid-50’s, pre-Betty-Friedan suburbia. Nora is trying to be the perfect wife, but she’s got some mighty big skeletons in the closet – the biggest being a loan from Carl (Cindy Kay), which she procured to pay for medical treatment for husband Harold (Melissa Martin). COFFEE and BISCUIT adds another skeleton to Ibsen’s original – Nora and her friend Betty (Bethany Taylor) resorted to prostitution to make ends meet during World War II, and Carl was their biggest client – and Harold doesn’t know.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be familiar with A Doll’s House to follow the show – I wasn’t, and didn’t even know there was a connection until a day later. The script is actually a very good adaptation – Ibsen’s plot is perfect for the forced-cheer perkiness of the 50’s, where women were expected to be thrilled with lives as wives and homemakers and surface was all.
But the stage gimmickry –the puppets, the television screens, the silent “puppeteer” controlling Nora – sometimes muddied things. Fun to look at, for certain – and clearly fun for the performers to do (although occasionally the puppeteering itself got a bit unsteady). But the play could have stood on its own without them. Especially at the end – instead of Nora asserting her independence, as she does in Ibsen, we instead get a puzzling dumbshow as Nora first interacts with her own “puppeteer” and then with the television screens, mugging at us like a sort of femme-fatale repeatedly as the lights fade.
Still even though the gimmicks left me scratching my head, the cast and script more than made up for it, and the play flew by. Even just one less bit of stage ballast, though, and I suspect it would have soared.