Absurdist What About Albert Serves Up Workers Rights

Two zombies in clown suits What About Albert

Malicious Basement Productions is known for producing horror theatre that appeared at the Festival de la Bête Noire. So, I was curious to know why author and producer Xander Chung shifted gears to create What About Albert?, an absurdist piece about two employees of a fast food restaurant.

Chung explains that the show is “An apocalyptic food service comedy about that limbo you experience when you’re on-shift, your manager is away because they left for another location to pick up more toilet paper, and you’re stuck.”

Samantha Gold, the show’s scenographer, further details, “It’s a show that even those who don’t work in food industry will relate to. It’s about the lulls at work where you have conversation with others and you’re stuck with for better or for worse. There’s animosity, backwards camaraderie, let’s make the best of it or at least learn to tolerate it a little bit. Everyone can relate to it whether they’re in a family situation, at water cooler, or working at a fryer.”

After 16 years working in the restaurant industry, though, Chung wanted to explore the purposelessness of existing within the fast food industry. “I worked in the food service industry for 16 years of my life, starting at 15 at the local McDonalds and subsequently in same role at another restaurant, all of which informed my political views that are behind this piece.” Chung says. “I can’t imagine working in the restaurant industry for over 10 years and not walk away a socialist. The dishes are different, but the story is the same. You’re always at the mercy of management and the owners. This is what What About Albert? is about, where the owners are not just characterized as people, they are the restaurant itself. They threaten to consume everyone who works under them.”

Gold points out that the show is very timely, given the “growing discourse about the labour shortage claimed by wealthy people who never had to exist on a limited income.” She is adds, “It tackles that issue head on.”

Chung expands on this. “Working in the industry, you understand the dichotomy between the capital owning class, what is deemed replaceable versus what is not, the people working versus the owners. The great resignation and the pandemic have shown us that while we’re always trying to get a seat at the table through promotion, through saving up enough to open up our own restaurant, or through screwing over the other employees, the people who make the food need to realize that they’re ones making the table in the first place.”

While there is a strong political message behind the show, it is an absurdist comedy, complete with puppets. Jordan Prentice, who plays Pod in the show, points out, “It’s easier to talk about something when it’s approached with humour. It makes difficult to approach topics easier to approach. It’s hard to think of something as being all powerful and all consuming when you’re laughing at it. The absurdity of working a restaurant job, we can help audience realize things that aren’t as serious need to be.” 

Chung says the play’s genesis is a piece he wrote for a science fiction class. Because the Fringe has such a short window to set up and take down the show, he needed to retool and do some soul searching, but seems pleased with the results. As he puts it, “When the pandemic hit, I was forced to leave restaurant industry, got some hindsight, and turned an absurdist story about two people who are holograms and aren’t sure if they are dead into two restaurant workers who see the world disappearing around them along with a mutant zombie cow which is a projection of a character’s vegetarian guilt. With the Fringe’s full return, this piece hits the mark. Honestly, it’s a hilarious, fast paced, with a witty, silly script that means a lot.”

Although Chung is happy to let audiences interpret the show how they wish, he muses that if he had to impose an intention, it would be for audiences “to take a look at this absurd and silly story, think about it for a minute, and say ‘Hold on, this is all insane, this shouldn’t happen,’ and then take that idea with them as they leave the theatre. When they go to a restaurant and understand that the dynamics behind the servers and what they’re dealing with, to keep that in mind. People claim that flipping burgers is skill-less job. It isn’t. It requires organization and teamwork to make that happen. It requires a livable wage and dignity as well. And that is not something anyone is used to when they’re working in a fast paced restaurant.”

Gold draws on her own experiences in the catering industry and retail to point out, “Customers and managers see you’re young and they don’t understand or respect your job and they feel entitled to your time and to disrespect you. They throw out words like lazy and they have no idea.”

Pretnice would like audiences to contemplate the experience of those in the service industry. “The days blur together and I want the audience to watch these people and wonder about their own lives when their managers are not there. What is important and what isn’t when the manager isn’t there. What are people’s relationships to their authorities?”

Gold concludes, “If you don’t come for the subject, the cast is very diverse. It is part puppet show. Who doesn’t love puppets? Come to support us because artists overall are underappreciated in society and taken for granted. Come support independent artists. We make society more bearable.”

What About Albert? is part of St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival that runs from June 9 – 19. The show runs at the Comedy Theatre of Montreal (1113 de Maisonneuve E ) on June 11, 13, 16. 17, 18, and 19. $15.25. Get tickets for the show HERE.

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