A word of advice to anyone preparing for post-vaccination, “real-world” social interaction again: practice your dinner party small talk. I learned this the hard way last week at a small, intimate dinner at CytyByrd, a cafe inside the Salt Lake City and County Building. It had been a long time since most of us mingled with strangers, and a lot of us didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves less than six feet apart. (Well, at least I didn’t.)
Some of the guests were having less of a hard time, probably because they had character sheets and scripts to work with. This party was part of SONDERimmersive’s new experiential dinner theater performance The Lost Generation, which transports guests back to the early 1940s. I didn’t even make it to the bar before sitting down for an impromptu interview with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Before the show starts, you can strike up a conversation with a lively, man-bunned and probably already tipsy Ernest Hemingway. And if you happen to take a bathroom break before food is served—and you definitely should—you’ll see a longsuffering fisherman battling, in violent pantomime, some sort of enormous sea creature.
The story combines a pared-down interpretation of The Old Man and the Sea with a portrayal of the volatile relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Tyler Fox) and trailblazing journalist Martah Gellhorn (Catherine Mortimer). In a Cuban seaside village, the old man (Kevin Giddins) has gone for weeks without catching a fish. This string of bad luck changes when he catches an enormous marlin (Amber Golden), but the protracted battle between the fisherman and the fish tests both of their physical limits. Meanwhile, Ernest, who is writing his novel in Cuba, begins a passionate love affair with Martha. Martha’s ahead-of-her time commitment to her career soon angers Ernest, who is deep in writerly loneliness as she travels abroad.
In The Lost Generation, Cytybyrd doubles as a restaurant and a theater set, and chef Liberty Valentine designed the space herself. The eclectic vintage decor, including an eye-catching wall of mirrors, captures the play’s mood before the performance even starts. The four-course dinner was Cuban-inspired, with an appetizer of rice, beans and plantains and tasty corn on the cob served in a boat-shaped dish. The main course was—what else—red snapper. (If you’re already feeling guilty for eating meat, it probably won’t help that a real-life actor was playing your dinner moments before.) Even without a show to watch the restaurant is a great place to hang out, and Valentine plans to reopen this summer as a casual bar and mingling space rather than a traditional dining room.
I won’t spoil the details of the performance, because discovering the playful, surprising ways the company tells this story is a big part of the fun. Fox, Mortimer and Rick Curtiss co-wrote the script with director Graham Brown, but the production is focused more on physical expression than dialogue. I sat across from a woman who is a SONDERimmersive regular, and she wondered aloud if the company’s unbound style would translate to a more formal space. (Their most recent production, Through Yonder Window, was staged in a parking garage.) She was certainly not disappointed—none of the actors could be accused of holding back.
No theater company in Utah right now thinks about space and movement in quite the same way as SONDERimmersive, and it’s exciting to see how the company continually expands the boundaries of theater. The Lost Generation asks a lot from the cast: each performance is a physically demanding mix of acting, improv, modern dance and even food service. The actors were not only up to the challenge; they seemed to relish surprising the audience and trying something new. SONDERimmersive’s experiential, immersive approach to theater creates an unusual intimacy—you talk with actors in character, watch them from your dinner table and chat with them over dessert after the show is over.
For now, the event is designed for single-party reservations of people in the same family or “bubble.” As for our group, the initial awkwardness didn’t last—especially because we were excited to actually be in a theater (or a cafe, or a beach in Cuba) again.