Appropriately for a play packed with hidden meanings, the title of The Angel in the House carries one too. Sara Porkalob’s Gothic melodrama, which opened at Café Nordo this past weekend, borrows its ironic title from a work by 19th-century English poet Coventry Patmore, a vaguely autobiographical, richly sentimentalized novel-in-verse about the courtship between a poet, Felix, and his betrothed, Honoria, a young woman of almost risible stainlessness. The phrase became a byword for the Victorian feminine ideal, and for its oppressiveness: the conflation of the concepts the of perfect woman and the perfect wife, and the way a pedestal can become a cage.
Porkalob’s juicy thriller turns all this on its head. It starts like a Wildean drawing-room comedy, as a wealthy upper-crust couple, Edmund and Amelia, plan a lavish New Year’s Eve masked ball. (I would say Porkalob missed a trick by not using, and thus subverting, the same eye-rollingly symbolic names Patmore used for his hero and heroine.) Darker events soon sidetrack the preparations: an American cousin with a secret, an Irish maid who knows more than she’s letting on, a shadowy “Brotherhood”—and what are these visions and fits Amelia keeps having?
The climactic revenge comes early, the more unsettling because we don’t yet fully understand why (and because, in Nordo’s cozy Pioneer Square performance space, it’s all happening four feet away). The explanations unspool later, as does a biting indictment of reactionary, male-promulgated Victorian concepts like “natural order”—just another bracing plot twist in Porkalob’s script, in which the politics and the lurid goings-on mesh and balance stylishly.
In Café Nordo’s typically inventive take on dinner theater, the exquisite menu, designed by Erin Brindley, ties into the play’s themes. Like the characters, the dishes bring their own secrets: A chrysanthemum salad may sound twee but the greens carry a startling spicy kick, while those silken flourishes floating in the velvety, blood-red beet and pear soup are not crème fraiche, but tangy goat cheese. (Like blood, beet juice is a stain you’ll never get out of a damask tablecloth.) Succulent slices of duck breast come disguised, wrapped snugly in Swiss chard leaves. Even the sweets echo the storyline: For Amelia, a former cabaret artiste, madeleines symbolize the Parisian dreams she left behind for the sake of marriage and English respectability (which came at a far higher price than she ever imagined), and their appearance on your table at the end of the show slyly underlines her eventual triumph. Desserts were never more just.
Ends March 15. $84. Café Nordo, Pioneer Square