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"Hi, I'm Angina, the daughter of Caesar, you'll be Jerk this evening," greets the actress/hostess as you enter Agatha's A Taste of Mystery. Angina's costume is a flowing assortment of robes fashioned into a toga. The show, Blood, Sweat and Togas, has begun. Guests are instructed to find their table, take note of the place card bearing their character's name and begin grazing.
Diners at Agatha's are more than an audience, they are actors. With a five-course meal served intermittently between acts, there's no room for a nervous stomach. When given their cue, diners must stand behind their chair and sing, chant or speak their part.
Like many of the visitors who are here for a special occasion, Collette Tomberlin is celebrating her birthday. "I've always wanted to come," she says. "I love mysteries. I'm always reading them and I thought this would be perfect." Tomberlin and her husband have made the trek from Hiram. She's Chinette for the evening and couldn't be happier.
Designed to keep your attention, the show is briskly paced and simply written. The anachronistic Roman parody is led by two actors, Emilio Perey and Nevanne Williams, playing the duo Angina and Ceasar who are charged with rethinking the carnage of the arena and decide to use wrestling instead of slaughter for the Romans' entertainment. The actors play out their scenes in the middle of the room, surrounded by long tables of patrons
eagerly awaiting their cue to speak.
When it's Chinette's turn to speak, she bravely stands and challenges Ceasar's son, Commodius, to fight one of the Raging Amazonian Women in a wrestling match. "She'll kick your butt," she exclaims
proudly, getting into her role.
Full of puns and the Latinizing of metro locales (Dawsonvilia, for example), the low-brow script gets an added pick-me-up when the wine starts flowing freely after the soup is served. Fully lubricated from red, white and "blush" wine, nearly 30 audience members stand and begin singing their ode to wrestling set to the tune of "America the Beautiful." Since everyone is required to participate, group parts get even the wallflowers involved in the show.
This dinner theater clearly puts more emphasis on theater than dinner. Appetizers are party food hors d'oeuvres, and the five entree selections are cooked quickly for the 150 waiting "actors." Servers rapidly deliver salad, soup and your choice of chicken, beef, salmon or tuna dishes to the table, while surreptitiously filling wine glasses to the brim. The strawberry shortcake dessert is the biggest hit, but it's the bellylaughs not bellyfuls that this crowd is after.
Tucked in a quiet Roswell neighborhood, the Swallow at the Hollow restaurant is small and unassuming. The thick, wood tables are packed on a rainy Saturday night, all for the Songwriters from Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. Well, that and the barbecue. A half-rack of ribs is served up with generous sides like slaw and fries as well as a trinity of sauces -- mustard, Carolina vinegar-based and tomato-based -- on every table.
The food here draws patrons every night of the week, but the hustle and bustle of the Saturday diners is immediately silenced when the three performers take the makeshift stage. This isn't like a typical concert where you strain to hear over cell phone babble, idle chatter and the token screaming baby. This is a serious music crowd.
Having traveled down from Nashville Friday afternoon, the performers at the weekend shows feature a rotating roster of guests. On this night, it's Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and newcomer Claudia Scott. With servers like Betty Ann, a struggling singer in her own right, calling everyone "honey" in her raspy, country twang, and the strum of acoustic guitars, the place really does start to feel a lot like Nashville.
All songs are written and performed by the songwriters. You may have heard them sung by someone else -- like Kane's "I'll Go On Loving You," popularized by Alan Jackson -- but this is the man who wrote it, singing it the way he intended. This is a fan's chance to see the fount of creativity at its source.
"Don't tell anyone about this place," Swallow regular Mike Orlin urges. "It's too good to get popular."
Orlin is worried that the great food, attentive crowd and quality entertainment will be lost if too many people discover the Hollow. Popularity does have its price.
Those seeking a little culture with their cuisine must be willing to pay. Most restaurants charge a cover, anywhere from $10-$40, and some require reservations. But if crowds are any indication, the chance to transcend the typical ho-hum dining experience is worth the cost. Luckily, with the variety of entertainment available, there's room for everyone at the table to get a piece of the pie.
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