Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of The Zombies of Penzance
It's great casting, with the witty, imperious Sarajane Alverson as the real-life "Chef Rossi," a celebrity caterer in New York. Kathleen Sitzer co-stars as the ghost of her noodge of a mother, and Erin Renee Roberts, who owns any stage she walks on, is Rossi's assistant "Skillit." In the first 45 minutes, the script mimics a rowdy TV cooking show (like "Cooking With Emeril"). But the digital sound effects and the frequent milking of the audience for applause don't do much to develop the characters, in the text by Jacques Lamarre, based on the chef's own memoir. The first half seems intentionally vacuous, with the promise of chocolate-covered bacon held tantalizingly over our heads for 45 minutes.
Lee Anne Mathews directs, but till that halfway mark, it's all very touch and go. That's because: 1) Raging Skillet sort of hesitates awkwardly every time there's a wacky, pre-recorded sound effect inserted from the booth, and during all those nanoseconds before and after, it's as if the performers are straddling a netherworld between pre- and post-production; and 2) there's that heavy reliance on reminding the audience to suddenly get rowdy, like a TV cooking show, which strains a different kind of suspension of disbeliefin ourselves, in the midst of unfamiliar action. It's like the "actor's nightmare," except this time, for the audience. Dunsi Dai's excellent set could probably use some "APPLAUSE" signs.
But then, rather surprisingly, the story comes together very nicely. The teenage Rossi runs away from home, and finds her first success as a caterer, on the road to becoming a field marshal on that high-stress battlefront. And the manner in which the rest of the show plays out has a lingering impact, not just on this audience, but for anyone who's had to cope with who they are and where they came from.
Ms. Sitzer does nicely as Rossi's ghostly mom, but occupies a very difficult part in the play, and in our collective subconscious, as a sort of gorgon of self-hatredin this case, as the Jewish mother who constantly confronts her daughter with nearly every cringe-worthy thing you could imagine a Jewish mother saying. It's a real tightrope to walk, and Ms. Sitzer almost always errs on the side of a kind of winsome awfulness, rather than real bitchiness. This seems like a mistake, as it robs Chef Rossi of a real (psychological) fight on stage.
There is a lot of "light" conflict (in flashback) until playwright Lamarre finally sends the ghost mom off-stage on a strangely unpleasant note, after she and her daughter have seemingly patched things up. Till then, the mother existed only as a sort of stalking horse, and stand-up comic in Rossi's memory. And though she generally occupies that Catskills-style spotlight, the playwright leaves us with a condemning image of a Jewish mother, suddenly robbed of redemption, in the moment when the nature of Jewish mothers can no longer be adjudicated, as she disappears off stage.
Her final bit of advice (about always complaining to businesses, to get a discount) lands harshly, because till then, she had gradually gone from comical to becoming admirable, through an unrelated series of scrapbook moments, also amounting to flashbacks, which are quiet but admittedly powerful. But then her redemption is ripped away, as we get that last parting shot. And perhaps there's also a tacit agreement that Ms. Sitzer (the recently retired Artistic Director at the New Jewish Theatre) may only be cast in likable roles. If that's true, it should be noted the arrangement really limits this particular show.
Raging Skillet is light fun with a pert, radical-feminist protagonist recounting her legendary, vagina-shaped hors d'oeuvres, with black seaweed on top of some, and red miso on others. But the show could be a lot more fun, if she had something more intense to play against, to keep the pressure up.
Raging Skillet, through October 21, 2018, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association