One visit to Queen of the Night is probably not enough. I heard rumors of clandestine milk baths, of oddly-dressed strangers who abduct you into back rooms for enigmatic fortune tellings. (I must have looked too vanilla, too scared, on the evening that I attended; all I got was a nice young lady who showed me the way to the restrooms, but first demanded I tell her a secret). The performance, held at the renovated Diamond Horseshoe at the Paramount Hotel, is generally billed as some combination of immersive- or dinner-theater, and as such there are various ways an evening can play out, though it always begins with a cocktail hour, the cocktails themselves produced by a burbling science-lab set-up behind the bar. Unlike Sleep No More—produced by Randy Weiner, the same man behind Queen of the Night—no one is required to wear masks. And instead of wandering through a gothic hotel, Queen centers on the action in the main space. That action—choreographed, kinetic, occasionally featuring things like chairs or knives being tossed around in flamboyant ways—is the result of a collaborative effort between the likes of Weiner, Simon Hammerstein (The Box), creative director Giovanna Battaglia, circus professional Shana Carroll, costume designer Thom Browne, and many others. As a result, the cumulative performance is nuanced and eclectic, conjuring a wildly varied assortment of references. (My dining companions were happy to chase them all, from highbrow to low, noting resonances with everything from the over-the-top sci-fi wardrobes of The Hunger Games to the sensual acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil and burlesque and the eat-with-your-hands decadence of Medieval Times). But since this is a dinner theater performance, plenty of attention should be given to the food itself, which is the brianchild of artist Jennifer Rubell, working in conjunction with executive chef Jason Kallert. Depending on where you’re sitting, you’ll get different meals; my group got piles of steamed lobster, served in an elaborate cage. If you’re not happy with those options, you’re encouraged to travel to other tables, perhaps trading a lobster claw for another variety of meat (all of this accomplished, of course, while some lithe men on-stage are launching themselves in impossible trajectories through little hoops held in the air).
I chatted with Rubbell about the philosophy behind her official role as Director of Food Performance.
I would describe the Queen of the Night meal as being both simple (literally meat and potatoes, in some cases) and highly decadent. How did you choose the main courses?
I’m always interested in the most direct means to an end. It was important to me that the food performance created a visceral reaction in the audience, a sensual arousal similar to what you might feel looking at porn or watching a violent film. To connect to that primal instinct, I needed food that was very elemental, instinctive. So we ended up with whole baby pigs, big hunks of beef on the bone, and lobsters in cages. I made the chef’s job very hard, though, because coaxing an intense level of flavor out of something as straightforward as a giant hunk of beef is as hard as making a brilliant monochromatic painting. He 100% accomplishes that, in an insane 10-second margin, for over 200 people, every single night.
My table received the lobsters, but were happy to trade off for some additional items–the suckling pig, the bone marrow. How did you develop the ‘share with your neighbors’ concept of the meal?
Whenever I create any kind of food performance, the first thing I want to do is destroy everything that’s bad about the normal way we all do things. And one of the worst parts of dinner theater, or any other context in which a few hundred people are seated for a meal, is that, even though you’re in a room with tons of interesting people, after the cocktail hour, you’re on lockdown. I remember a while ago I was talking to the head of events at MoMA, and he told me the number-one thing all the trustees complain about is having to sit at their tables all night for the galas. I just don’t understand why anyone accepts that the world has to be the way it has always been. Encouraging people to get up and go to other tables to beg, barter or steal food is really giving them permission to go up to anyone in the room and start a conversation.
Book your own tickets to Queen of the Night now. And vegetarians, don’t get scared off by all this talk of baby pig—non-carnivores can partake of an alternative, currently involving mushroom paella and oversized roasted cauliflower.
Main image: courtesy Billy Farrell Agency. Portrait of Jennifer Rubell by Nikolas Koenig, courtesy of the Paramount Hotel.