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St. Louis by Richard Green

Cooking with Elisa
Upstream Theater

Also see Sarah's review of The Fall of Heaven

Cooking with Elisa
Shanara Gabrielle and Jane Paradise
You can judge a good kitchen by its finely honed cutlery and perfectly seasoned frying pans. And, likewise, should be able to judge a good play by its razor-sharp vocabulary, and the way its characters are swiftly dumped into hot water. So it is with the American premiere of Cooking with Elisa, where the words (and the action) are edgy, bloody and brutal, though the results are strangely delicate, under the direction of Bonnie Taylor.

It's often said that consumerism has separated modern man from the gross realities of gathering and preparing his own food—after all, it's all right there on the grocery shelf, cleaned and packaged—but in Lucia Laragione's play, we're plunged back into the most primitive, gory details till we wonder what century we've stumbled into, or even what primeval breed of Man must be wielding the killing blade. And yet, in the hands of Jane Paradise as Nicole, magical things arise from the chopping block, and old clay bottles, and from the whole bounty of a beautifully designed kitchen on stage.

But the pretty young lady who's hired on as her assistant (Shanara Gabrielle) never knows quite where she stands with Nicole: one minute she's the fool and the next, she's achieved some surprising culinary victory. And we, too, are mystified by the ferocity of her mentor, and her arcane ways. There's also the apparent jealousy directed at Elisa (Ms. Gabrielle) by Nicole—first over the gift of a lovely white dress, then over the attentions of a ranch-hand. Ms. Paradise achieves an amazing transformation in the role of the blustery chef, implacable and rustic, and as full of knowledge about game and produce as her kitchen is lovingly detailed. It is true that both actresses are a bit tentative with the game shears and the big knives, but let's face it: with a bank of stage lights shining in your face, you don't want to take any chances.

And that brings up a few other points: with all the celebrity chefs on TV these days, exhibiting their prowess, what are our expectations of the actors on stage who play fictional chefs, and should we be surprised that good drama can actually be whisked up out of a modest meat grinder and the wood-burning precursor to an Aga stove? Further, let's not ignore the fact that this Upstream Theater production also signals a departure from their own past shows, in two notable ways: it refuses to include any significant portion of other-worldly music (though there are ample farm sounds); and also forbids any unusual, ethereal lighting effects (which Upstream regularly uses with stunning power). These two "fastings" in their latest production, combined with an entirely different approach to a "cooking show," make for a blazing, stark adventure where (producer) Philip Boehm's translation easily becomes the most compelling special effect—with hideous, allegedly harmless, dialog and a steadily increasing sense of foreboding.

It should probably come as no surprise that Elisa is, ultimately, a horror story—with its talk of starved snails drowned in vinegar-water, and boiled crawfish and the eventual, grisly death of one of the men on the ranch (among other smaller, ignoble deaths). Of course, a staged horror story requires a full measure of the imagination, and more than a dash of empathy—both of which seem to be in short supply in the modern world. But the formula works with irrevocable power in this case. And as the last grotesque butchering is revealed to us, we are left with the simple but stunning revelation that there is, fact, a recipe for everything.

Through January 23, 2011, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501, North Grand Ave. at Olive Street (a block south of the Fox Theatre), in mid-town St. Louis. For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org or call (314) 863-4999 (or visit them on Facebook).

Cast
Nicole: Jane Paradise*
Elisa: Shanara Gabrielle*

Offstage
Director: Bonnie Taylor
Set Design: Scott C. Neale
Costume Designer: Michele Siler
Lighting Designer: Ann Wrightson**
Sound Design: L. Ruffin, P. Boehm, J. Limpert
Props & Scenic Artist: Kim Wilson
Stage Manager: Emily Clinger*
Casting: Carrie Houk
Costume Assistant: Katie Donovan
Props Associate: Kari Ely
Assistant Stage Manager/House Manager: Maria Straub (EMC)
Electrician/Board Operator: Pamela Diliberto
Sound Operator: Kathy Jarowicz
Set Construction: Nick Uhlmansiek
Intern/Running Crew: Nick Henke
Cooking Consultant: Sharon Tutko
Graphic: Joe Iskra
Hang & Build Crew: Sean Book, Mark Kelley, Bess Moynihan, Aaron Walker

* Denotes member, Actors' Equity Association

** Denotes member, United Scenic Artists Local 829


Photo: Peter Wochniak


-- Richard T. Green

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