Don’t be too misled or intimidated by the grandiose verbosity of writer and co-director John Ammerman’s program notes for Theater Emory’s “The Tatischeff Café” (co-directed by Clinton Wade Thornton), his otherwise affectionately imagined homage to the French filmmaker Jacques Tati (1908-1982, best known for “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” and “Mon Oncle”).
As the esteemed Atlanta actor describes it, his play is “a reflection of natural human behavior located in one specific place, possessing a wide array of archetypes … who find themselves interacting within a series of events, moments (and) occurrences in a balance between the ‘usual’ activity and the ‘unexpected’ happenings of what characters bring to a moment in time.”
Ammerman continues, “As every fantasy has its own reality, this tribute to Tati’s comic style also possesses a sense of magic: a theatrical ‘spirit’ beyond the common action (that) seeks to toy with the notion of fate, a power beyond ourselves, a supernumerary presence that tickles the idea of a tangible Ghost-of-blessing to dramatize the virtues of giving, conscience and fortune in a world that has its own personal struggles of loneliness, poverty, hope and survival.”
While all of that may read like so much hot air, “The Tatischeff Café” is actually a fanciful breath of fresh air – especially coming from Theater Emory, with its typically and understandably academic approach to the work. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, the company’s responsible for some of my most indelible memories over the years. Where else would you ever get to see such things as “Agamemnon,” “Peer Gynt” or the original 1891 German drama that inspired the popular 2006 rock musical “Spring Awakening”?)
Comparatively slight in more ways than one – the show only runs about an hour – the “comic pantomime” unfolds at a quaint corner bistro (splendidly envisioned by set designer Kat Conley), involving a number of idiosyncratic neighborhood denizens who congregate there. In addition to Ammerman (as a lovelorn bachelor), the cast also features local veterans Mary Lynn Owen (as a beggar who might be “fallen royalty”) and David de Vries (as the ghost of Tati, alternately observing and controlling the action from afar).
In a remarkably accomplished turn, student actor Adam Weisman holds his own marvelously as the adolescent boy who narrates the story (in fluent French, with English supertitles). There’s scarcely any dialogue among the rest of the show’s characters, just occasional “gibberish,” although other ensemble members who nevertheless acquit themselves most memorably include Hannah Church (as the boy’s mother, the winsome café waitress), Tim Harland (as his romantic but ill-fated father) and Caitlin Reeves (as a flustered postman).
Instead, Ammerman and Thornton shrewdly emphasize the spirited physicality of the comedy, which is inventively choreographed – and dexterously performed – with a wonderful finesse. Ammerman and Owen share one unspoken scene near the end that’s particularly priceless.
Nice stylistic touches abound throughout the production: a couple of moments employing a magical butterfly; a fairly constant prerecorded soundtrack of keenly effective (if uncredited) incidental music; the colorful costumes of designer Sydney Roberts.
You needn’t know a lot about Tati to embrace the underlying sentiment that the Tatischeff Café is the closest thing these eccentric characters have to “home” or a “place to belong.” Likewise, Ammerman may over-intellectualize it in the program to note that the show’s absurdity “allows us to laugh at the very humilities that make us human and ring true to our vulnerabilities,” but for a play that so rarely relies on words, it’s genuinely heartfelt all on its own.
“The Tatischeff Café”
Through April 14. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $12-$15. Mary Gray Munroe Theater (in the Alumni Memorial University Center on the Emory campus), 630 Means Drive, Atlanta. 404-727-5050, www.theater.emory.edu.
Bottom line: Sweet and charming, if a trifle slight.
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