If any theatre company were going to adapt and stage The Symposium, Plato's philosophical text on love, I'd hope it would be a brazenly inventive group, capable of balancing an academic understanding with the craft of hospitable storytelling.
While the topic of passion is timeless, Plato's antiquated form could make for a dry and isolating night at the college-man's theatre if sparkling new life weren't breathed into his material.
Fortunately, Halifax's radically fresh Zuppa Theatre Co. has made The Symposium its own in its newest collaboration, Pop-Up Love Party. Plato's six speeches on eros (desire) have been updated for the modern age, taking place in hipster-paradise Lion & Bright Café Wine erosBar, in the trendy North End.
Directed by the playfully profound Alex McLean, Zuppa has paired with Nova Scotia-born, Michelin-starred chef Daniel Burns of Brooklyn's top-rated restaurant Luksus. Burns's contribution is a crucial ingredient to the Pop-Up experience. He's composed a seven-course snack menu where each dish represents, in flavour, the thesis of each of the speeches given in The Symposium. As in Plato's text, each speech in Pop-Up Love Party is meant to outdo the one before, while truly capturing the meaning and significance of love and desire.
Where The Symposium characters are a who's-who list of actual ancient Greeks as imagined by Plato, Pop-Up splits performers Susan Leblanc, Ben Stone and Stewart Legere into foils and caricatures of their true selves. They echo the spirit of the original speech-giver but provide their own modern, personal take. Plato wrote the rules, but it's the Zuppas who play the game.
The cozy, "where-everybody-knows-your-name" atmosphere of Lion & Bright is embraced by the performers as well as technicians Nicholas Bottomley and Brian Riley, stationed between the café's entrance and an espresso machine.
Legere greets visitors familiarly, Stone explains Plato's work plainly and encourages us to drink ("symposium" does mean drinking party, after all), and Leblanc names names when speaking to the audience in a segment near the end.
For the most part, no one is "acting." Like Plato's original text, Pop-Up's characters are real people, gently fictionalized. It's glorious.
The bar's familiar interior is dressed up for the theatre in Bottomley's invigorating video design; Legere's original music is mixed live by Riley. Zuppa situates us in a heightened present and makes Pop-Up Love Party a triumph for the theatre-not-in-the-theatre prototype.
The collision of personal truth in the speeches with the flavours on the plate is when Pop-Up Love Party truly shines: Leblanc's first speech on eros discusses love and attraction as the world's oldest force, and is elevated by chef Burns's caramelized onion chip (best enjoyed as it melts on the tongue). Leblanc is captivating, but it's at speeches' end, when a projection of Leblanc's young daughter is shown – the "embodiment" of love – that my heart caught up with imagination and taste buds.
Likewise, Legere's most earnest moment comes after sharing a handful of true details from his life. He holds a kangaroo court judging "Bad" love from "Good," pleading with the jury to believe that "Good" love lives within him despite any of his misgivings. Burns's palate-puzzling malt and parsnip mousse cookie heightens Legere's speech, its clashing flavours symbolizing how a person's capability for love is not a simple black-and-white concept.
Given the "love" of its title and Zuppa's merger of real-life stories with the adapted text, Pop-Up occasionally loses heart for the sake of technical craft or its experimental culinary nature. It's a double-edged sword that makes the show stylistically distinct, but it borders on overpowering the genuine human connection one goes to the theatre for.
Legere eventually points out that his colleagues have not truly "looked love in the face," a relieving self-awareness of how Plato's text intellectualizes love without truly discussing the nitty-gritty of how it feels. Legere's proclamation is backed by his own spectacular pop song and a delicious fried oyster wrapped in braised cabbage. Beneath the fast-food batter there is the salty decadence of sincerity.
It's not that the actors need to exploit their real lives for the sake of theatre in a confessional way, but rather continue marrying emotional depth with the theatrical contrivances Zuppa is known for. That being said, there are no empty moments in Pop-Up, and perhaps sustaining such raw honesty would distract from the sensory experience of chef Burns's creations, or the relaxed party atmosphere.
The final (official) speech of the night channels Plato's mentor Socrates and is tenderly delivered by Stone. This moment is the perfect balance of philosophical thinking, affable storytelling and sensory stimulation. Stone sits, and, without music or projection, muses on love as the search for beauty and permanence. The bustling bar joins in a communal meditation as we slowly nosh on the ginger sorbet representing our desire and the bitter lemon of our mortality. If this were church, I'd be there every week.
Zuppa Theatre has a masterful style coupled with a solid handle on the ancient Greek text. The "Food For Thought" menu elevates the celebration with an enthralling fine-dining experience.
Pop-Up Love Party will satisfy anyone on the hunt for good love, good food, and a transformative night at the theatre – or the pub.
Pop-Up Love Party runs until March 29 at Lion & Bright Café Wine Bar, 2534 Agricola St., Halifax. It was developed in part through The Collaborations at the National Arts Centre. Tickets are $40, or $25 for a snack-less experience (zuppatheatre.com).