Forget whatever your parents might have told you about playing with your food - one show in New York makes it okay. Well, at least for 90 minutes.
Cookin', which has just re-opened at the Minetta Lane after a successful fall run at the New Victory, describes itself as "Jackie Chan meets Benihana meets the Marx Brothers." I prefer to think of it as "Stomp meets Iron Chef," but either way, it's a high-energy celebration of food and fun for the whole family. (Just don't try most of these stunts at home!)
Conceiver and director Seung Whan Song originated Cookin' in Korea in 1997, and it quickly became the longest-running show in the country's history. It was adapted from the music form Samulnori to work with a variety of kitchen implements ranging from knives and woks to brooms and buckets and just about everything else in between. The result is a piece completely unlike anything America is likely to produce, but never seems anything less than universal in performance.
Oh, it has a nominal story: three chefs, working at an upscale restaurant, must complete an expansive wedding banquet under severe time constraints, with the manager (Kang Il Kim) constantly breathing down their necks and doing what little he can to keep them on track. The chefs' efforts are hampered by the manager's nephew (Bum Chan Lee), who he insists must be allowed to help prepare the meal.
The chefs have characters, too: there's the experienced and dedicated Master Chef (Won Hae Kim), the younger and more energetic Sexy Food Dude (Ho Yeoul Sul), and the vivacious female chef Hot Sauce (Chu Ja Seo). The chefs need to initiate the nephew into their fast-chopping ways while playing out all their traditional rivalries and a new one - the nephew is attracted to Hot Sauce, who is already attached to (or at least flirting with) Sexy Food Dude - while trying to get the banquet completed on time.
But the characters and the story aren't what Cookin' is really about, nor do they matter much after a while. The show's action, humor, and "wow, there's no way I could ever do that" factor are what make it work so well. And whether the chefs are rapidly and rhythmically chopping up four different kinds of vegetables for a salad, chasing a still-living main course duck with an axe, or throwing plates in an intricately choreographed pattern, not a moment passes that something exciting or hilarious isn't happening on the stage. That alone makes Cookin' successful.
It should be noted that some audience participation is expected - six audience members might have to participate in the onstage festivities, as either part of a soup tasting or an onstage game show, The Dumpling Challenge, and everyone else will be expected to encourage them. But those scenes, like the rest of Cookin', are all in good fun.
Dong Woo Park has designed a fine utilitarian kitchen set, Hee Joo Kim's costumes cleverly delineate the characters, and Hak Young Kim's lights - particularly during the percussive opening and closing scenes - are equally well done. Jai Hyun Park's sound design tends to be a bit loud at times, but provides an otherwise good atmosphere for the onstage hijinks.
As for the performers, they're all highly skilled as athletes and comics, though their character work is strong enough to convey plenty, even though only a handful of English words are ever used. While I can't testify as to the performers' actual culinary abilities, the heaping portions of tasty fun they cook up over the course of Cookin' is more than good enough.