TheaTour!: The Empire Garden Restaurant

If you’re like me, old, repurposed theaters both thrill and dismay you. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see something familiar in a surprising light (how will they use that mezzanine?!); on the other, it’s always a bit sad to see the breeding grounds of art turned into a deli or a shoe store.

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

That melancholic mixture—half smile, half tear—arrives full bore at the Empire Garden Restaurant in Boston. Known in legitimacy as the Globe Theater or as Loew’s Globe Theater, the EGR successfully retains much of its theatrical charm, making a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Still… it makes a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Enough said.

Dipping under its deep red marquee, a small, uneventful lobby takes you to a TV-studded, classical stairway.

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

Another lobby waits at the top…

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

… and snif snif—you’re in dim sum land!

Make sure to mind the carts as you enter the gorgeous seating area. (Apparently the panels in the proscenium open up to reveal another dining area, opened for weddings and such.)

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

After ordering, run on up to that proscenium and take in the plaster.

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Just don’t think too hard about the strange collision of Eastern and Western art behind you!

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

The entire restaurant, the owner explained to me, sits one floor level above what would’ve been the orchestra section. (As if the stairs weren’t enough of a giveaway, the proscenium’s legs tell the original story: They’re almost comically short.)

But that original ground level grants no hint of its glitzy, lavish past. Today, it’s an Asian foods market.

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So: Yes, it’s cool to have your lunch in such gilded splendor. Who doesn’t want a little cherub watching as you eat pork dumplings?

But it’s also a bit sacrilegious, isn’t it? Knawing your way around a temple of theater?

Forgive us, Bacchus, as we slurp and chew.

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Boston, Part II: “Our Town”

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“Cruel” is not a word usually liked to Our Town, that glorious, perfect play of the everyday and the cosmic. But it’s highly appropriate in the case of the Huntington Theatre’s current production, a revamp of David Cromer’s devastating, super successful staging previously seen in Chicago, New York, and L.A.

Playwright Thornton Wilder’s contention is that it’s nearly impossible for humans to appreciate their lives. “Saints and poet, maybe—they do some,” Wilder writes, but the rest of us are left floundering in “ignorance and blindness.” His play, then, serves as a wake-up call: Look at everything!, it cries, take it all in!

How, you ask, is that cruel?

It’s all in the actors.

Cromer has guided them to quick, plainspoken, totally unsentimental performances. They sit with nothing—words and scenes whizz by at an exhausting clip. Even at the gorgeously written finale, the big revelations play out even before they seem to have begun. Speeches that usually get a more thoughtful pace stampede out of view; you almost feel yourself reaching out, gasping for breath, “Wait, wait for me!”

This tactic is, in a word, cruel—if you love this play (as I do), you want to soak everything in, moment by moment. At the Huntington, you are totally denied this desire. Cromer refuses to meditate on things, instead hurrying unblinkingly to the final blackout. The delicious moments of transcendence only brush your tongue before getting yanked away. It’s frustrating. It’s exasperating.

And it’s wildly, brilliantly appropriate. Thanks to Cromer’s take, the play become a two-hour metaphor for a lifetime of hurried, unappreciated living; by forcing you into the agonizing position of harried observer, Cromer and Wilder shake you into self-awareness, into becoming an observer of both a play and your own life. In both this production and life, events zoom by, the next thing rolls along, then poof! another act, another year’s gone by.

Like a booming drum, this Our Town practically screams out into its final silence, Life is short. Moments disappear. Grab them by the horns.

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“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company

photo by T. Charles Erickson, pictured: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly

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