Ensemble Theatre, May 9


Only ex-cons work at Clyde’s. It’s a purgatory through which they must pass before re-entering the pearly gates of normal life. The theological metaphors don’t end there, because while the setting might be a truck-stop sandwich shop on a B-road in backwoods Pennsylvania, it has in Clyde a woman who’s made a Faustian pact with gangster financiers, and in Montrellous a man who’s made a Sydney Carton-like pact with an angel.

Clyde is the boss from hell, badmouthing, harassing and victimising her staff. When bewildered kitchenhand Letitia asks her, “Who the hell hurt you?”, she fires back, “What makes you think I was the one that got hurt?” Later, when she’s pushed her workers to the brink, new boy Jason plucks up the courage to tell her – with risible understatement – that she’s mean. “The world is mean,” she replies. “I’m just in it.”

Charles Allen. Top: Nancy Dennis, Ebony Vagulans and Gabriel Alvarado. Photos: Prudence Upton.

She’s more than it. She moulds it in her image, and actor Nancy Denis inhabits her with such relish it’s as if she’s just bitten into one of Montrellous’ exotic sandwiches. Denis bumps and grinds about the stage, a cross between a dominatrix, a jive-talking sergeant major and a vindictive screw. It’s a delicious role: one of those comedic characters (think Basil Fawlty) whom we’d loath in the flesh, but whose odious behaviour is hilarious – and Denis earns all her laughs.

The other four characters in Lynn Nottage’s 2021 play are the sympathetic ones. Montrellous is to sandwich-makers what John Coltrane was to jazz musicians: a magus who elevates his art into the spiritual realm. We, like Jason, initially find that hard to believe in relation to two bits of bread and some filling, yet Charles Allen ensures we swiftly accept Montrellous’ lofty ideals of doing everything with your head, heart, hands and soul all fully engaged. Allen makes it credible that we should find in a sandwich shop a sage sent to remind the rest of the characters (and us) how to live; how the joy of mere sustenance can be enough to make one content.

Aaron Tsindos, Ebony Vagulans and Gabriel Alvarado. Photos; Prudence Upton.

Clyde, Montrellous and Letitia are African American, while Rafael is Latino and Jason is white – so Jason’s white supremacist tattoos don’t really cut the mustard. He was jailed for bashing someone when he lost his job, Raphael for an attempted bank robbery to fuel a drug habit, and Letitia for stealing pharmaceuticals needed by her disabled daughter. All have done their time and regret their crime, but none can make peace with the world like Montrellous can, whom they hold in awe.

Ebony Vagulans (Letitia), Gabriel Alvarado (Rafael) and Aaron Tsindos are all admirably cast in Darren Yap’s production, with Simone Romaniuk creating the kitchen which houses dreams of lobster sandwiches with caramelised fennel, and where tuna melts are made. Morgan Moroney’s lighting is intrinsic to the story-telling, depicting time lapses and half-baked dreams, and Max Lambert and Roger Lock’s music communicates the backwoods setting.

If the actors can’t quite reach the play’s emotional peaks of anger and distress, Nottage’s text is less strong at these times than when Clyde is laying down the law in her purgatory, or Montrellous is trying to raise the collective consciousness to higher planes of resurrected lives and what Nottage has referred to as “finding grace in the simple business of living”.

“Don’t disappoint me by having aspirations,” Clyde tells Letitia. This salty little play’s own aspirations are mostly beautifully contained. When they do reach higher, the actors would do well remember Montrellous’ advice that overcomplication obscures the truth.

Until June 10.