The bad tipper. The wine snob. The lick-the-plate-clean-but-still-complain-about-quality asshole. Anyone who has ever worked in food and bev has met, in the flesh, these real-life painfully terrible tropes. In turn they've painted on the ingratiating smile, forced — through blisters and fatigue and 24 hour hangovers — that delightful pep in the step. They've tied the apron tight, tugged the pony tail to new heights, memorized the specials as if they were the Hippocratic Oath. "How is everyone doing this evening?"
Flowertown Underground delves into the lives of four cocktail waitresses in the dramedy, Shakers, a companion piece of sorts to their most recent Underground production, Bouncers. Where Bouncers, also the brainchild of British playwright John Godber, takes on the funny and frenetic pace of a Fully Committed-like, one-man production, Shakers is a bit more of a laugh out loud, then sit and simmer think-piece.
"The show in and of itself has so much comedy, so many funny moments," says Flowertown Executive Director and Shakers director Courtney Bates. "But there's also a lot of personal turmoil that these waitresses are going through. This is more of a dramedy. It's not completely one-sided."
The decision to put on two Godber plays back to back, each receiving a three-day run, was no accident. The two productions have been marketed as a "battle of the sexes" with Bouncers put on by a male director, male actors, male stage director, and Shakers produced by an all-female crew. It's a clever way to get people in the door, sure, but even without the dissected hot pink and bright blue promotion posters with Bondesque shadow figures — a suited man's silhoutte, a long-haired waitress balancing a martini — in a town dominated by the world of F&B, the premise of either show should intrigue. Because while it's quite British, it's also entirely universal.
Bates says the waitresses in Shakers are relatable, due in large part to each actress having experience in the F&B industry. And they carry this deep-seated knowledge — the kind that makes you stay up clutching a bottle of wine (sometimes!) until 4 a.m. in the morning — with them on to the stage.
"They have a lot of asides," says Bates. "You have that one couple who comes in that is very hoity-toity and then the next couple that comes in that doesn't know how to pronounce 'pâté.' And the characters have asides to the audience so they're getting an in-depth view of what they're thinking. You hear everything [out loud] that you've ever thought of if you've worked customer service."
The customers aren't all heinous, though. There's one group Bates says is her favorite, the group of women who just want to have a fun night out. "They start with them from the beginning," Bates explains. "They work at the supermarket and then we see them getting ready, then at the cocktail club, then you see them leaving the club. And one is crying over a guy. It's all very realistic: We've all witnessed the girl on the sidewalk crying."
There is, indeed, a certain intimacy that blossoms between strangers and criers, servers and customers, during an evening out. Sometimes it's funny, other times it's surprisingly sweet. And more often than not it's simply, undeniably, deflating. "There's also the idea of getting treated like trash," says Bates. "You're waiting on [people] and you get treated like garbage. The theme of the show is they [the waitresses] are on the low totem pole. [Waitress] Carol has a monologue on how she has a degree, and got her degree in photography and she doesn't know how to get out of this."
Added to that layer of being treated like, well, servants lacking human qualities, these particular servers are all women, and working late hours in a boozy club, receive the kind of unwanted attention that, in the real world, has been brought out of the dark into the light of late. But this isn't the real world. It's a play. And with this fiction we have the luxury of examining a still prevalent, uncomfortable truth.
"The idea of misogyny and taking advantage of women is there," says Bates. "Men feel like they have even more entitlement in a cocktail club with alcohol involved. And you don't know if men are being serious or if they're trying to get a rise out of someone. Mario [the manager] wants the waitresses to wear shorts at the club — like Hooters or something like that. It's another way that an employer would try to exploit the female body just to get more money. They don't go super into it — the misogyny. It's an underlying theme; you don't get a clear answer about what they do about the shorts."
The play will run for three days in the Flowertown Underground black box space. Like all black boxes, it's more intimate than the main stage. Audience members will be seated at tables close to the stage, so the servers can weave in and out, close enough to touch. Bates wants the audience to soak it all in: "You see into these women's lives for one night and then you go home and get to think about how that affected you. You think 'What really did happen to Mel?' 'Are they going to show up and wear the shorts?' Then you start answering those questions yourself."