Jillian Mathews works to craft realistic-looking dishes required for the upcoming Everyman Theatre production of "Dinner With Friends." (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)
Call it Humpty Dumpty’s revenge.
Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, learned the hard way exactly what can go wrong when food gets used in a live theatrical production.
“We were doing Martin McDonagh's play, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” he recalled recently. “[Actress] Megan Anderson’s character had to break eggs over her brother’s head and there was no way to fake it. The audience had to see the eggs running down his face and spilling onto the floor. The crew cleaned the floor every night and we thought all the egg was gone.
“But when you smash an egg, little bits of it go everywhere. About two weeks into the run, the whole theater stank of rotten eggs.”
Ah, theater food. In the upside-down, inside-out, topsy-turvy world of a live play or musical, food is never really food, at least when it appears on stage. Food is a prop like a table or chairs and like them, it has a job to do. Food is therefore required to behave in some very unfood-like ways, and getting it to cooperate can cause conniptions for directors and their prop masters.
The perils of produce and polenta have been on Lancisi’s mind recently as he prepared for the opening of the show’s new production of “Dinner With Friends.” All of Everyman’s shows this season have involved some food, but “Dinner with Friends” is a gastronome’s dream.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Donald Marguiles is a smart, witty dissection of love, friendship and a marriage on the rocks. Gabe and Karen are wedded food writers who are shaken up when they learn that their friend Tom has left Beth, his wife of 12 years.
During the show, Gabe and Karen prepare a salad and a sauce. They marinate lamb and uncork two or three types of wine. They serve a lemon almond polenta cake. And God help Lancisi, the play also includes the one other food on the planet that smells as awful as rotten eggs — cooked fish.
Since handing out individual gas masks to members of the audience isn’t an option, Lancisi wasn’t taking any chances this time. “We’re making an artificial bluefish out of plastic,” he declared.
That’s what led Everyman’s prop czar Jillian Mathews to devote four days recently crafting four perfect fillets of fake bluefish that fulfilled all of the exacting requirements of stage food:
This fish had to look convincing enough to fool audience members sitting in the first row less than three feet from the stage edge. It had to be sturdy enough to be reused for eight shows a week for four weeks. Making the fillets couldn’t cost a lot. They could not be constructed from materials that would stain the actors’ costumes or dirty their hands. And above all else, they could not smell like fish.
So Mathews, who grew up in State College, Pennsylvania as the daughter of a ceramics artist and a sociologist, printed out images of her ideal bluefish fillet as viewed from the top, bottom and sides and taped them to her work table. Then she assembled her tools: gray modeling clay, a type of silicone with the evocative brand name of “Dragon Skin” and a form of polyurethane that she said “looks like mashed potatoes made out of fiberglass.”
Mathews has spent years crafting, curing and then painting her plastic sculptures.
“Sometimes the fake thing looks the most realistic,” she said “and the authentic thing looks fake because it doesn’t match audience preconceptions. For our 2015 production of ‘An Inspector Calls,’ I had trouble matching painted plastic candlesticks to a real silver centerpiece. I ended up making an acrylic paint wash and coating the silver centerpiece with it so that the finish was similar to the finish on the plastic.”
Mathews also has become accustomed to spending days and even weeks perfecting props that spend mere seconds in the spotlights. For this production, actor M. Scott McLean (playing Gabe) walks on stage with the “fillet” wrapped in brown paper. Actress Beth Hylton (Karen) unwraps the fillet, places it in a pan at the rear of the stage and, her back turned to the audience, covers the fish with marinade.
“That fish is on stage for maybe one minute total,” Mathews said. “The audience’s attention is on it for only a moment or two. You do all this work so that Gabe can say, ‘Oh honey, I got the bluefish.’”
But Mathews doesn’t really mind. If the audience barely notices her props, that’s proof she’s doing her job.
“If it looks real, the audience can ignore it,” she said. “But anything that doesn’t look real will distract the audience and pull them completely out of the world of the play. They spend the rest of the scene asking themselves, ‘What the heck was I looking at?’”
Not surprisingly, when real food is prevented from behaving like food, there can be amusing mishaps. Lancisi related an anecdote that occurred more than a decade ago and involved an unnamed Baltimore troupe:
Everyman Theatre's production of "Everything is Wonderful" has inspired a Baltimore County couple to offer forgiveness to the man whom they believe killed their son, Shawn Laken, 30 years ago in a car crash on the Bard College campus.
“Their props artisan was telling me about the time they had to shellac a ham” to preserve it, he said. “It was a big banquet, so they went out and they bought a whole ham and they shellacked it with a bunch of different coatings of polyurethane until they got it just the right color. But gas was building up inside that ham. Three weeks into the run...”
An eruption also was central to Rep Stage’s 2018 production of Sam Shephard’s “True West,” but this one was even crummier.
In the show, the character of Austin burglarizes 20 homes in his Los Angeles-area neighborhood but steals only toasters. He plugs the appliances into the kitchen and loads them with nearly three loaves of bread. At a critical moment during each performance, the toasters simultaneously pinged and shot between 50 and 60 slices skyward. For members of the audience, it was like watching a display of fireworks made from browned bread.
“We not only had to find 20 toasters that looked as though they came from different households, they had to be from the 1970s,” Joseph Ritsch, Rep Stage’s producing artistic director, said.
All that toast might have come in handy during the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s 2010 production of “Titus Andronicus,” when the actor playing the emperor Saturnius gave a new definition to the term “starving artist.”
The show’s big scene occurs at a sumptuous banquet during which the guests are served savory meat pies, but the actual dish served on stage was then-stage manager Mindy Braden’s famous recipe for potato knish.
For one of the technical rehearsals — which make for notoriously long work days -- Braden’s pie smelled especially amazing. On that day, the actor performing Saturnius was ravenous. When the cast finally got to rehearse the beginning of the banquet scene, he happily tucked into his knish.
He was not ready to put down his fork when, just moments later, the actor playing the character of Titus made his big annoucement -- he had murdered two boys as an act of revenge and baked their ground-up bodies into the pastry.
The banquet guests reacted appropriately with gags, gasps and widespread revulsion — except for Saturnius.
“He devoured his serving and then he ate everyone else’s,” Braden wrote in an email, “He didn’t stop even after his character learned he was technically eating his stepsons.”
Though it took three years after “The Cripple of Inishmaan” for Lancisi to get the yolk, by last fall he had gotten the smell of sulfur out of his nostrils and was once again ready to mount a show requiring actors to smash eggs on stage. Chelsea Marcantel’s script for “Everything is Wonderful” called for actress Deborah Hazlett’s Amish farm wife to hurl a dozen against a barn wall.
But this time, Lancisi and Mathews were prepared.
First, she sprayed the eggs with a matte sealer to strengthen the shells. Then, she devised several odor-free mixtures resembling egg yolk, finally settling on a concoction of aloe vera gel, water and yellow food coloring. Then, she blew the egg’s innards out using a baby nasal aspirator and a needle syringe. Finally, Mathews painstakingly refilled the egg with the aloe blend.
It took her about an hour to retrofit a dozen eggs for each of the late rehearsals, but they looked fantastic.
Unfortunately, there was a glitch. The sound the aloe-filled eggs made when they splattered against the wall drowned out the voice of an actor on another part of the stage. So Mathews tried painting each egg with clear nail polish to deaden the sound.
“The fake eggs were still too loud,” Lancisi said.
Finally, set designer Daniel Ettinger created a metal trough running beneath the stage. The shattered eggs would slide down the wall and collect in the trough, which was scrubbed after each performance.
“Jillian tried all kinds of things to make it work,” Lancisi said. “But ultimately, we couldn’t beat real eggs.”