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Chicago by John Olson

To Master the Art
TimeLine Theatre Company

Also see John's review of The Seagull

Master the Art
Joel Gross, Karen Janes Woditsch and
Craig Spidle

One might wonder if a stage biography of the author and TV cooking star Julia Child is necessary just a year after the successful feature film Julie and Julia. It is, but it would be wrong to immediately explain why and delay telling you that To Master the Art is a total delight—funny, touching, charming and as enjoyable as an exquisite meal enjoyed together with good company. It need not be rationalized or analyzed—it can simply be savored, and as Child's mentor Chef Bugnard might say, shared. There is so much humanity and wise but never cynical humor that it's a pleasure just to be in the company of these people for two hours and twenty minutes.

To Master the Art follows generally the same plot of the Julia Child story in Julie and Julia, beginning with Julia in post-war Paris determined to learn to cook in the French style and continuing through the publication of her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." As written by William Brown (who also directed) and Doug Frew, and as performed by Karen Janes Woditsch, Julia is warm, funny, down-to-earth, lovable and vulnerable—a character who could say "Sacré bleu and howdy do" without feeling awkward. To my memory, it's a deeper, more nuanced performance than we saw from Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia. Maybe it just seems more genuine because Ms. Woditsch is not so known to us as is Ms. Streep, whose familiarity makes it hard to forget she's an actor. In any event, we stop making comparisons to either Streep or the real Ms. Child (who is shown on video in the lobby) early on and believe her character. Woditsch, in the intimacy of the TimeLine Theatre shows us Child's insecurity at being in her late thirties without a career of her own and her unique mixtures of strength and sensitivity, self-consciousness and gregariousness. With her facial expressions and tiny gestures, she makes us believe Child has a powerful love of food. Her nasal twang and awkward gait have just enough similarity to the real deal without becoming mimicry or caricature. It's a marvelous lead performance, but one that is supported by a cast of equally perfect performances that create a family of warm and generous characters.

Child's husband Paul is a larger and a more detailed role here than in in the film. Though Paul is the one with a career—as exhibits officer for the U.S. Information Service charged with educating the French on the wonders of American culture and society just after World War II—he has his frustrations as well. He's frequently impatient with governmental bureaucracy and shocked and frightened when McCarthyism touches his life. Craig Spidle gives Paul Child a rugged masculinity that has room for the love of French cooking he introduces to Julia. He's deeply in love with her and supportive, but we see his impatience with her at times and on one occasion his loss of faith in her vision. Spidle's Paul is a wonderful, well-rounded character who seems every bit the "man behind the woman" while a substantial man in his own right.

The Childs are surrounded by passionate people who are soul mates on some level. Their earliest and best friend in Paris is Jane Foster Zklatovski, a painter with a Communist background that will become problematic during the McCarthy witch hunts. Amy Dunlap plays her with an impressive range covering both confident idealism and abject fear. The remaining seven performers all take on multiple roles, deftly making wig and costume changes that make this artifice nearly invisible. Jeannie Affelder is delightfully quick-witted and dry as Julia's co-author Simone Beck, and in another role, wise and warm as a food vendor. Terry Hamilton plays the demanding but kind Chef Bugnard as well as Julia's conservative and cold father. Ann Wakefield is Avis DeVoto, the relentlessly enthusiastic pen pal who ultimately gets Julia's book published and also the snooty Madame Brassart who hinders Julia's progress at the Cordon Bleu school. Juliet Hart plays Judith Jones, Child's editor of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" as a smart and confident but personable professional. Joel Gross, Ian Paul Custer and Ethan Saks play Julia's energetic and likeable GI energetic classmates along with a variety of other roles.

Brown and his design team create a remarkable feel for the time and place. Keith Pitts set is a detailed recreation of the kitchen in the Childs' Paris apartment, but much of the action occurs around a simple rustic wooden kitchen table, which all by itself does much to establish the setting and the heritage this piece celebrates. The costumes by Rachel Anne Healy cover a range from traditional French peasant wear and culinary school uniforms to mid-century business attire. Brown effectively extends this simple set by staging some scenes downstage without benefit of scenery.

It's not clear who should be credited for two other aspects of production design. Real (or at least realistic) food is served on stage and the appetite appeal of French cuisine is stimulated by a feast of aromas throughout the play: shallots sautéed in butter, chopped onions, fresh baked bread. Is there an award category for "scent design"?

Where To Master the Art goes beyond Julie and Julia is the way it communicates a sense of this era's importance as a transitional period in history. In post-WWII Europe and America, the world was starting to become smaller. In fact, Paul Child's job was to promote democracy and American values through promoting American culture. Similarly, America was ready to learn more of Europe, and Julia Child became a player in that movement through her promotion of French cuisine to Americans. The play also communicates the horror of the Childs at the McCarthy witch hunts and their sense of disillusionment with their native country they love, even as ex-patriots enjoying an amazing life abroad. The play is in remarkably good shape for a first production. It slows down a bit in a few places, and I would have liked a little more clarity as to the timeline of the action, but these are minor points which are easily be fixed or overlooked.

If some producers feel the public still has an appetite for Julia Child, this play could be the next big export from Chicago. In any event, it ought to increase the number of reservations at French restaurants in the area over the next few months.

To Master the Art will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays through December 19, 2010, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information, call the TimeLine Theatre Box Office at 773-281-8463 or buy online at www.timelinetheatre.com.


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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