Posted by: strugglesome | February 13, 2011

Spanish Fly: The Groundswell Players’ Little Plates, Big Tapas

Despite its current uber trendy connotation, tapas has rather humble origins. Today hometown hero Jose Garces may be serving up delicious morsels of truffle-wrapped platinum in a unicorn-blood reduction for 15 dollars a bite, but tapas initially evolved as a preventative measure against drunken carriage accidents. Tapa literally means top, and it refers to pieces of bread covered with cheese or meat that would be placed over a glass of wine or beer at posting inns, to keep out flies and keep drinkers from getting so drunk that they would be unable to return to their respective homes. The tradition of getting small plates of food with every drink you order remains popular in southern Spain, where little portions of Serrano ham, cheese, and paella are portioned out with every glass of Ribera served. Of course, here in the United States we’ve transformed the commonplace and hearty into the precious and costly, but hey, we are also the country that invented the Turducken, so, pros and cons on both sides, really. All this aside, there is no denying that the United States is currently having a love affair with what it considers to be tapas, and so, for that matter, are the Groundswell Players, a group of Haverford alumni with improv backgrounds and theatrical aspirations whose latest piece, Little Plates, Big Tapas, is as delicious as it is disheveled.

Set in an excellently tacky Italian bistro which could have been ripped right out of the heart of South Philadelphia, courtesy of  set designer Jacob Riley and lighting designer Dom Chacon, the piece centers around Tyler Bumpo (Jack Meaney), the enthusiastic inheritor of his recently (and HILARIOUSLY) deceased father’s restaurant. While Tyler is pushing to turn Frank’s Pasta into Frank’s Tapas, transforming the humdrum Chicken Parmigiana into a titillating Pollo con Queso, his staff, holdovers from the former regime, are less thrilled about this gastronomical evolution. Nebbish waiter Martini (Scott Sheppard) finds everything unbearably overwhelming, calmly creepy piano man Don (Nick Kerr) is confused, and broadly drawn kitchen staffer Benny (Nicholas Mira, who doubles as Tibetan sherpa Ringpa) just walks out. But Tyler is determined to realize his food-fueled vision, and impress the girl of his dreams, Delilah (Alison King), and no amount of unhappy employees, latent homosexual husbands or prodigal brothers home from world tours(both roles played by Jesse Paulsen) are going to stop him.

Staged by director Dan Plehal using direct audience address (in the form of “restaurant wide announcements” with the aid of a painfully squeaky microphone), stark realism and scooby-doo style flashbacks, vacillating somewhere between purely slapstick farce, intelligent satire and homage to cinema, this piece, created collaboratively by the Groundswell Players (that is, all of the actors mentioned early) has all the attributes of good improv, that is, it’s exuberant, energetic, and generous to it’s audience. Given that the front portion of the audience bank is seated in tables, giving the piece that delightful Tony and Tina’s Wedding vibe, its easy for the actors to relate to the audience, serving them the comedy directly, as it were. What is more difficult is maintaining the many conflicts set up by the story in the face of the natural inclination to make people laugh. If this fun and frothy work has an issue, it’s that it sets up too many things, it gives the audience too much information about events that don’t end up being all that important. We have a love triangle AND a business changeover AND a family conflict AND ancient Tibetan mythology AND culinary comedy. All at once. It’s sort of like an Long Island Iced Tea. It’s fun, but you know it’s going to get you into trouble.

That being said, it would be difficult to overstate how much fun this show really is. It’s rather like a well crafted cheese steak, it’s filling, it’s delicious, and while it might not be the most wholesome thing you ever consume, it’s certainly one of the more satisfying dishes you devour. Substance and drama are all well and good, but they can’t always be substitutes for actual enjoyment.

Little Plates, Big Tapas will be running at the Latvian Society through Monday. Tickets are available here.



  1. And what about the ground breaking use of fake mustaches?

  2. The Pew Fellowship for Sustainable Mustache Development? Well, I didn’t want to give to much away…

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