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Clyde’s

Clyde’s
Writer: Lynn Nottage
Director: Darren Yap
Ensemble Theatre
May 9 – June 10, 2023

According to author A.D. Aliwat, “When done right, a sandwich can lead to transcendence”, and so it does, or something like it, in Lynn Nottage’s very funny truck stop café play Clyde’s. The sandwich it seems has the power to unite, to bring romance, to release from fear, give self-respect and personal autonomy.

However, to the four ex-cons working in Clyde’s kitchen, there is one larger-than-life obstacle to the achievement of any kind – their boss, the intimidating and outrageously power-dressing and ex-con Clyde (Nancy Denis). She has some wonderfully acerbic remarks to direct at her subservient employees which the exuberant Denis delivers with an implacable lack of sensitivity but also offering an irresistible invitation to laugh. “Don’t disappointment me by having aspirations,” she says to her four ex-cons, and when accused of being mean, she responds with “The world is mean, and I’m just in it”.

As a direct contrast to Clyde, her employee, Montrellous (Charles Allen), is an inspiration to  the kitchen hands, Rafael (Gabriel Alvarado) and Tish (Ebony Vagulans) who are eventually joined by the tattooed Jason (Aaron Tsindos). Rafael describes Montrellous as “like Buddha if he’d grown up in the ’hood” and apart from his Zen-like pronouncements – “this sandwich is my freedom” – Montrellous encourages self-esteem and aspiration through the creation of new sandwich combinations. The moments – enhanced by golden lighting – when they imagine the sandwiches they could create provide the warm centre of the play and its meaning.

These moments create the basis for change in the play. We learn the background stories of the characters as they chat at their workstations, the reasons for their incarceration and their present struggles. The fearful Trish with a dependent child is further demoralised by a shonky boyfriend. Rafael has romantic longings but doesn’t have the nerve to act on them and a habit he might return to. They both are resistant to Jason when he first joins as a kitchen hand, and he is initially resistant to the Montrellous aesthetic. Will they remain the victims of Clyde, who is either glaring at them demonically through the servery or striding into the kitchen in sexy outfits, to harass and taunt them?

While Clyde’s association with the powers of evil are comically reinforced through puffs of steam from the griller and clouds of smoke from the refrigerator, can she be redeemed? Will she try the sandwich she has repeatedly refused to taste?

Clearly, Denis relishes (no pun) her role playing the bully with comical gusto and Allen’s quiet, kindly presence as the saintly and self-sacrificing Montrellous provides a necessary balance. Both Alvarado and Vagulans gain sympathy as hard-working strugglers who would like to make something better of their lives, and Tsindos is convincing as a marginalised man who just wants to survive.

Tightly directed with a keen sense for its comical potential by Darren Yap, but also giving due weight to the shadow side of its characters’ stories and their circumstances, this Ensemble production offers a very entertaining evening at the theatre.

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