Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series, in which we find out: “How do they do that?”
On a Wednesday afternoon, Seattle actor Mara E. Palma shows up at an unassuming storefront in Pioneer Square. Though nondescript outside, inside this vintage building (and former home of Elliott Bay Book Company) is the popular offbeat dinner theater Café Nordo.
Palma, a cast member in the current Nordo show, is reporting for one of her many tasks in tonight’s show: setting up dining tables in the all-purpose performing space.
That’s her first shift. Her six-hour workday at Nordo will end at 10:30 tonight. And she’s just one of nearly a dozen cast members who juggle multiple roles for hours, playing a number of different characters, all while also serving as waitstaff.
For a Café Nordo audience member, everything runs smoothly. You order and receive cocktails, are served an appetizer, then settle in for the entertainment and several more dinner courses. Tonight, the show is “Jitterbug Perfume,” a wacky sci-fi tale with a New Orleans twist, based on a beloved novel by La Conner author Tom Robbins. The amusingly convoluted plot about immortality and the holy grail of perfume has been adapted for the stage by Café Nordo artistic director Terry Podgorski and co-writer Stephen Robinson.
The director and executive chef Erin Brindley describes it as “a story with a lot of philosophy in it, but when it’s distilled down to its essence it is a raucous endorsement of a life filled with love.”
It’s also loaded with characters. So how does the hardworking, well-oiled cast of 10 local actors juggle some two dozen roles with dining duties?
Let’s look at Palma as an example. The genial Wellesley College alum — a playwright, director and practiced performer, who was previously in Nordo’s “Persimmon Nights” — is a whiz at theatrical multitasking. And she cheerfully accepts that in “Jitterbug Perfume” she assumes several roles, dances, serves food and helps set up (or on some nights, clean up) the dining area — often with only moments to spare between tasks.
“I think of it like being a runner. For an actor it’s a different kind of mindset and endurance test, especially in a show that runs for two months,” Palma says. (The play closes May 12.) “It can be challenging on your body, so I consider this my workout. But it’s so much fun because I like to stretch my brain in different directions.”
Part of the physical routine is running up and down stairs, between the theater and a lower level that once housed Elliott Bay Book’s author readings. It now houses Nordo’s professional kitchen, curtained-off dressing rooms, and a new second venue, The Knife Room, where a jazz group is performing tonight.
But another aspect is Palma’s ability to take a few breaths, and presto-change-o — shift her persona. That’s the alchemy actors gain through training, experience and attitude toward one’s craft. It also helps that all of the cast’s transformations in the show have been predesigned and timed by Brindley and choreographer Alyza DelPan-Monley, and are supervised intently each night by dining-room manager Maddie Brantz.
This evening, here is Palma’s marathon:
4:30 p.m.: Mara clocks in and helps set up the dining area for tonight’s show.
5:45 p.m.: She joins in a movement and fight rehearsal, running “certain things that need a little work,” according to Palma.
Then there’s some time to “get settled, do my vocal warmups. I also like to connect with the other actors, and get into character” — that is, several characters.
6:30 p.m.: The Nordo doors open. As the audience streams in, the actors finish dabbing on makeup in their dressing rooms. Palma plunks on a poofy wig and outsized purple sunglasses for the opening bit.
7 p.m.: To up-tempo music by the Nordo band, Palma dances with other female castmates sporting oversized, Mardi Gras-style masks and interacts with the crowd, to pump up the mood. “That part is a lot of fun,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll get somebody in the audience to dance with me. Or I’ll see friends there, and get them involved.”
Soon, sticking with the Mardi Gras vibe, she’s helping serve the appetizer of savory beignets (New Orleans-style doughnuts). Then backstage, in a narrow hallway stocked with pieces of clothing and props, she pulls on a mock-leather jacket for her main role of Ricki, a rocker bartender. The costume helps her get quickly into the part. So does changing her walk to a shoulders-back swagger, deepening her voice, and giving off the sexy vibe needed for her banter with Priscilla, a waitress and wannabe perfumer played by Helen Roundhill.
7:40 p.m.: For her next, lickety-split costume change, two fellow actors help tug Mara into a long, gauzy blue gown and another wig to play the nymph Lalo. This time Mara pitches her voice higher and softer, and doesn’t so much walk as waft. Soon, she’s back to switch into the duds of Ricki.
8:05 p.m.: Mara races into the changing area again, to fetch salads of scarlet beets and couscous that have been run up the stairs from the lower-level kitchen by other designated actors.
Noting a chart that lists which patrons have dietary restrictions, she delivers the dishes. Now, at last, it’s time for a longer break downstairs to rest and glug water (“I sweat a lot, and it’s really important to stay hydrated”).
9:55 p.m.: After other quick changes she’s made in Act 2, Mara’s back for Act 3, this time as a newswoman in a swift, easy bit: just hold a mike and adopt the earnest voice of a TV reporter. Fifteen minutes later, she reappears onstage as Ricki, who after some heartbreak finally “gets the girl” in the end.
10:15 p.m.: Mara takes her final bows, and hits the dressing room to slip on casual clothes. Getting out of character and back to oneself, after the adrenaline rush of performing, can be hard. Some nights the cast “will have something to eat the cooks make us, or we have a drink to unwind together.” Or she just heads home, so wiped out “I can only tear off my clothes and fall into bed.”
If it sounds grueling, a Nordo actor’s life has its rewards for Palma. The pay is acceptable, especially with tips shared with other waitstaff. And the audience is appreciative. But also, she says of her theater colleagues: “We’re a community, a family. And doing this is an act of love for us.”
An act of love — with a lot of sweat.
“Jitterbug Perfume,” adapted by Stephen Robinson and Terry Podgorski from the book by Tom Robbins. Through May 12; Café Nordo, 109 S. Main St., Seattle; $74-$99 including dinner; 206-209-2002; cafenordo.com