Theater / Film

Review: Zoetic Stage’s ‘Clyde’s’ cooks up masterful writing, great acting and the power of laughter

Written By Christine Dolen
November 6, 2023 at 3:38 PM

From left, Karen Stephens as Clyde, Gabriell Salgado as Rafael, and Kristian Bikic as Jason in Zoetic Stage’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami, through Sunday, Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The luckiest among us love going to work.  We embrace the challenges, appreciate the camaraderie, find opportunities to grow. Is that picture idealized? Sure, but it does happen.

The unlucky ones, people whose options are limited, don’t have the luxury of feeling fulfilled by what they do to keep food on the table. Walking into work each day can feel like passing through the gates of hell if someone or something makes the place toxic.

The folks who toil at Clyde’s eponymous truck stop sandwich shop fall firmly into the latter category.

From left, Randy Coleman, Sydney Presendieu, Gabriell Salgado and Kristian Bikic lean in as Karen Stephens reads a review of her truck stop restaurant. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s, which is kicking off Zoetic Stage’s 14th season at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater in Miami, is second on the list of most-produced plays at America’s regional theaters in 2023-2024 (last season, it was first).  Zoetic’s production is one of the finest from artistic director Stuart Meltzer and company, with the uncommonly rich comedy delivering every note of humor and pathos in Nottage’s multifaceted play about folks who have done time.

Nottage, the only woman who has won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, wants the audience to truly see and empathize with this formerly incarcerated kitchen crew, if not with Clyde (Karen Stephens) herself.  As the grill guy Rafael (Gabriell Salgado) notes, he was told that Clyde “sold her soul to get this joint,” and nothing about her tyrannical, aggressive behavior argues otherwise.

In addition to the Latino Rafael, the restaurant on what the playwright calls a “nondescript” stretch of road in Berks County, Pa., employs three others who have done time.

Montrellous (Randy Coleman), a lanky Black man who has found spiritual salvation in appreciating food in its most perfect form, is described by Rafael this way: “Montrellous, he like the Budda if he’d grown up in the ‘hood.”

Beautiful Letitia, nicknamed Tish (Sydney Presendieu), is a Black mother with a disabled daughter and an unreliable, abusive ex.  Jason (Kristian Bikic), the new guy, sports tattoos that brand him as a white supremacist, marking him as an unwelcome and untrustworthy presence in Clyde’s kitchen.

From left, Karen Stephens as Clyde stares down Kristian Bikic’s angry Jason in Zoetic Stage’s “Clyde’s” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

As for Clyde herself, she too was once incarcerated.  As incarnated by Stephens, she’s a visually alluring Black woman who never met a leopard print she didn’t love.

When it comes to sexual harassment, she’s an equal opportunity practitioner, at one point aggressively putting her hands on Rafael, then Jason (intimacy direction is by Jeni Hacker).  More significantly, she’s a crusher of dreams. The word “killjoy” could have been coined for her.

Clyde wants to maintain the culinary status quo at her restaurant, serving greasy spoon classics that should come flying though the pass-through window.

Montrellous, on the other hand, dreams of improving the place by elevating the quality, creativity and ingredients of its sandwiches, and he gets the others to buy into his vision as they verbally share some wild but delicious-sounding ideas.

That’s the setup for a collision course between Clyde and her crew, and collide they do – again and again, often hilariously.

Throughout his career, Meltzer has displayed a gift for staging comedy, even enhancing more serious plays by finding moments of leavening humor. His “Clyde’s” cast brings moments of tenderness, self-reckoning and furious frustration fully to life, but wow, can they make the audience roar with laughter.

As the impossibly demanding Clyde, actor Karen Stephens never met a leopard print she didn’t love. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Stephens, who won a Carbonell Award a decade ago for her performance in Zoetic’s world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “Fear Up Harsh,” is at the top of her game in “Clyde’s.”  Her words, her actions, even Clyde’s omnipresent cigarette become tools to keep the workers, who didn’t have abundant employment options once they got out of prison, in her debt.  Though she’s attractive and petite, Stephens plays Clyde with a swaggering confidence that reveals the outsized monster within.

Salgado has displayed enormous range in his work at several South Florida theaters since graduating from Miami’s New World School of the Arts in 2019.  He has been a literary leading man (Miami New Drama’s “Anna in the Tropics”), an evolving monster (Zoetic Stage’s “Frankenstein”), a would-be Olympic swimmer (Ronnie Larsen productions’ “Red Speedo”), the sexy boy next door (GableStage’s “El Huracán”) and more. But never has he been funnier than he is in “Clyde’s.”

He rhythmically sways his culo as he dances while grilling. Kitchen implements become a superhero’s weapons in his hands.  He cluelessly tries to sell his prowess as a would-be boyfriend to Tish, but the way that thread plays out leads to the story’s most tender moment.  And the look of horror on his face as Clyde comes on way strong both verbally and physically? Priceless.

Bikic has what could be viewed as a thankless task in bringing Jason, who was also a character in Nottage’s earlier play “Sweat,” to life.  But the skillful actor goes from keeping his head down and trying to avoid confrontation to genuinely embracing remorse for the act that landed him in prison, sharing his torment and aiming for redemption.

Presendieu conveys Tish’s frustration at the unreliability of her childcare options while trying to avoid the wrath of her impossibly demanding boss.  And she makes clear that a succession of bad choices in the romance department has kept her from truly seeing the good thing dancing at the grill.

From left, Randy Coleman’s Montrellous teaches Sydney Presendieu’s Letitia how to lovingly handle the ingredients for a sandwich in Zoetic Stage’s “Clyde’s.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Coleman’s Montrellous is so Zen that he sometimes seems to be meditating when he isn’t.  He comes to life when he describes his personal redemption through the quality, texture, aroma of food, particularly the perfection embodied in an “elevated” sandwich. For the others, he’s a sensei, a listener, an adviser.  When he finally talks about what landed him in prison – everyone except Clyde gets around to that moment – it becomes clear that he is one elevated human being.

The artists on Zoetic’s creative team have outdone themselves with “Clyde’s.”

Scenic designers Jodi Dellaventura and Natalie Tavares, and properties designer Natasha Hernandez have created a commercial kitchen with orderly stations as well as painted green and white-tiled walls smeared with what looks like decades of grease, splatter and dirt on them.

Doubling as costume designer, Hernandez makes her boldest statement about class and taste with Clyde’s attire, emphasizing heavy gold jewelry, splashes of devilish red, and omnipresent leopard prints atop faux leather pants.

Lighting designer Tony Galaska underscores and enhances moments of flaring emotions and intimate feelings, and Matt Corey’s sound design contributes the sizzle of the grill, the bubbling of French fry oil and so much more, including Clyde’s perfect musical coda: “Sympathy for the Devil.”

From left, Gabriell Salgado shows off his grill ninja skills as Kristian Bikic and Sydney Presendieu gawk in Zoetic Stage’s production of “Clyde’s.”  (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The fact that “Clyde’s,” which had its world premiere on Broadway in 2021, is being produced by so many theaters is no surprise, both for qualitative reasons (Nottage’s writing is, as always, layered and deeply insightful) and pragmatic ones (a cast of five makes economic sense in these hard times for many theaters).  Seeing Zoetic’s good-as-it-gets regional production is a delectable experience, and in a world rife with conflict, laughter really is sustenance for the soul.

WHAT: “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage

WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN:  7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 19

COST: $55 and $60

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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