As the lights dimmed for opening night of Smoked in Pioneer Square, we, the Cafe Nordo attendees, sipped hooch and munched alfalfa-smoked popcorn. We sat at our assorted wooden tables; the legs of our chairs made sounds when we moved them. Everything about the space felt like an homage to the archetype of the western saloon of the movies. Right away we learned that tomorrow there’s going to be a hanging. That’s why we are all here in this otherwise empty Old West town. We are vultures, here to see the man dance at the end of a rope. The plight of the small farmer vs agribusiness is the broad machinery of this fourth cocktail-themed show presented by Chef Nordo. You get five courses, most paired with a variation on whiskey, and murder.
The music needs to be mentioned first. What Annastasia Workman (et al) have done with live scoring in this production is remarkable. The word is atmospheric. Melodramatic thicknesses of synthesized whole notes that practically shout Angelo Badalamenti were contrasted with bowed saws (literally) and strategic shakers and drums that expertly amped the tension. It was noticeable, and necessary. Smoked without Workman would be like There Will be Blood without Jonny Greenwood. Taking a moment to look up to see them in the midst of it didn’t diminish the experience of the show. (It was another aspect, a cheat at what I would notice on a return visit.)
The hand-in-glove feeling between the music and story allowed for olde-timey gags, like how Mark Siano was introduced with a twang of a mouth harp. He’s the Sheriff, but he hides his badge when The Advocate (Ryan Higgins) and Madi “Mad-Dog” Withers (Kate Hess) come by the saloon to strong arm the town’s remaining local farmers. Clara (Opal Peachey) is behind the bar that serves as the backdrop, pouring continuous shots for Eli (Maximilian Davis), whose brother is the one about to get strung up. Enter The Stranger (Ray Tagavilla), and the story begins.
Any good Western needs a quality villain. Smoked has two. Higgins is all crocodile smiles, and carries charm and menace with equal measure. The reveal of small-statured Kate Hess as the muscle goes from silly to intimidating on a dime, when you catch the crazy in her eyes, when you see her bared teeth. At one point she yells “I can smell his cowardly sweat!” while Eli hides. She gets some of the best lines.
You are lucky when a show has a moment or two that bends spacetime–when they are obeying some ritual, unaware of the consequences, letting in the magic. For me with this one it was threatened gunfight. There is a confrontation between The Stranger and Mad Dog where they are both threatening to go for their pistols. Getting to sit there with some untold quantity of booze in front of me, watching Tagavilla’s shootin’ hand quiver in the air, his eyes resigned to another murder, while upstairs the musicians were filling the room with audio madness–I was prepared to believe anything.
The story with this show is gritty, severe–less whimsical than previous efforts. Clara seems genuinely traumatized; her clientele reduced to final, vengeful victims. Eli embodies desperation. This isn’t a celebration, or send-up of genre, as much as an attempt to honestly convey the spirit of a Western, through locally-sourced food theater. There is humor, but it is not the main focus. The callow Sheriff offers relief from the tension, and gravel-throated Travis Shank (Evan Mosher) interjects shots of silliness. With the ticking clock of the hanging to come, and the constant threat of violence, the kill or be killed gods of the spaghetti western get their sacrifice.
The story is punctuated with the food and cocktail courses. When you arrive you are given an aromatic campari and soda concoction along with the tasty smoked popcorn. You’d be exercising miraculous restraint if you didn’t find yourself at the dissolved sugar cube bottom of your glass in short order. The “spaghetti” in this western is a lovely salad of noodlized veggies and salty chunks of mozzarella. Clever, vinegary, and light.
The big hit at my table was the sunflower seed risotto. The seeds surrender their crunch to become savory impressions of rice, with beets, served chilled. It came with a “Dusty Sunset,” a fluffy concoction of bourbon and egg white. Big smiles. The big concern for vegetarians for the evening (those willing to overlook gelatin) is the oxtail chili. I can tell you that it is tender meaty dreams swimming in umami, with carrots there to remind you that later in life, vegetables must return in a big way. The vegetarian option is a fine bean feast, but it’s hardly the same. This would be a good time to indulge in meat cooked down to spoonable brilliance, while watching performers with guts and skill conjure future memories.