Ever walk into a theater and find yourself thinking; wasn’t I JUST talking about this? Isn’t this LIFE? And, then for a moment you think, I don’t want to see LIFE on stage, there’s too much of it in LIFE as it is, I don’t need one bit more of it? And, THEN you find yourself just immersed in the pain and irony and humor of life as it plays on the stage. And, then you find yourself kind of unable to fully process why a play that you didn’t THINK you wanted to see and thought was so familiar, was actually enormously original and so…well…good? So, yeah…that. San Jose Rep’s The Big Meal pretty much…did that. With 8 actors in 90 minutes straight.
This is a difficult show to watch I think because it is so good. The chaos on stage is real, in your face, visceral and relatable. In fact, I don’t think that there’s single person who wouldn’t identify with most of this show on some level. You don’t need to be married, have kids or even have siblings to understand, relate and be sucked in to this story. Which, is kind of a magical thing.
There are a lot of spoilers I need to step around here. A lot of details that if mentioned would lessen the impact of specific moments that are really beautifully crafted and executed. I’d be remiss though if I didn’t say that the attention to details, the subtleties in the writing, certainly the direction, as well as the superb acting are what make this piece seep slowly into your bloodstream. The flow of the piece – the structure – is sharp, clean, fast-moving, emotionally charged, but the mastery is definitely in the miniature. The tiny nuances, the way an actor turns on point, the faintest gasp and flutter, the fragility and the strident perseverance in every look, smile, breath and vocal choice. This is NOT “easy” theater and the cast does a fantastic job committing and “selling” each of their roles.
With a poetically simple set, thoughtful and effective lighting, and with layered (literally) costuming that all aligned perfectly with the metaphors and themes of the play, this remarkable, tightly-performed play had me cringing uncomfortably in places, laughing, terribly annoyed in spots, smirking a bit, and quite depressed at times. Not at all my most cherished emotions for play going, admittedly and certainly a lot of places to be emotionally in such a short span of time. It was a bit of a hijack situation as well as over and over an emotional about-face is demanded of you at the literal sound of a bell. But, despite devices I’ve seen before, the dark matters at the heart of the play, the multiple characters played by the ensemble actors (which is so hard to pull off well), and all the other reasons I’d have to dislike this play quite a lot, I walked away truly impressed.
The use of real silence on stage is rare and when juxtaposed with purpose against the rapid-fire emotional calisthenics of the majority of the play, it’s an extremely moving and appreciated stillness. The audience holds their breath collectively at moments which is a powerful communion to take part in. They come to expect certain ebbs and flows, clearly being swept away by the depth and pull of the story and the play’s clever configuration. Be prepared for a lot of unexpected I love yous, hugging and plenty of calling your family afterwards. It could happen and it could be all this play’s fault.
I’m actually a bit shocked that given the topic and some of the negative reactions I had to the content of the piece, I still really “enjoyed” it. I found it impossible to not take the ride despite a healthy dose of resistance, and that people…is what really good, captivating art does. 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a troublesome, but ultimately, maybe nearly flawless production of a piece that digs deep, stirs profoundly and raises a reflective mirror up to our souls. The Big Meal plays through June 1st at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in Downtown San Jose.