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Kitchen Witches at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 25 January 2010

Part of the job of a work of art is to startle the viewer, to jostle her/his expectations in some way—often, but not necessarily, unpleasantly—to do something new and fresh. Many people who write reviews, or those who burble about a performance just seen, convey their impressions of the work by detailing what happened, not how it made them feel—in other words, they diminish the power of the storyline to surprise the viewer. In my view, every creater should get her/his moment in the sun. For this reason before I see a new work, I usually shun speculation and limit myself to the first sentence and last paragraph of reviews and publicity announcements.

In spite of these habits it’s almost impossible to bring a truly open-minded perspective, so I had expectations for Kitchen Witches—what do you expect from a comedy whose playbill illustrates a chef wearing her mixing bowl with contents as a hat? Camp jokes?

Kitchen Witches, written by Caroline Smith and directed by Robert Taylor, concerns two friends who aren’t, anymore. These historically rancorous celebrity chefs (should that be chèves?) must work a televised show together.

Although I expected to be amused, having seen 3 of the 4 actors before, I still had strong reservations about the play. I dislike slapstick; I find people behaving like asses embarrassing, not funny.

Well, I was right. The play starts out with a sketch of personalities—mere caricatures—doing some foreseeable, stupidly ludicrous things. I felt awkward; in truth, we would not broadcast some of these antics—too absurd. Not too long into the play, though, the characters lose their thinness; they become real people and their behaviour starts to lose its predictability. Then there is a shocking twist and we’re into totally new ground.

As we sit in the audience of the Masquers theâtre watching Kitchen Witches, we become viewers of a live recording of a television show. The people onstage talk to us, the TV audience. We slip in and out of participating in the play, becoming more embroiled as the play progresses. In addition, a Masquers audience is loud—aficionados joining in—thereby exacerbating this sense of altered reality. There is semi-continual laughter from the audience.

With a small cast, some of whom wear street clothes, Costume Designer Marjorie E. Moore doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to exercise her talent, but she performs breathtaking feats nonetheless.

My Actress Most Enjoying Herself award usually goes to an actress who expresses glee and self-satisfaction with her rôle, a shoo-in for Dolly Biddle (Ellen Brooks, photo, left), the more flamboyant of the pair of wacky chefs. (Photo by Jerry Telfer).

Dolly is short and smug. She’s amused with herself, her accent, her dress, her accoutrements, and her cooking flair. Except when she’s not—which provides its own excuse for histrionic embellishments. Although I know she’s following a script, Dolly feels like she’s ad-libbing her way through the performance with great swathes of tragic overacting.

Dolly is one of those characters I tend to like instantly, probably because she’s so outrageous. I don’t mean she’d make a good friend, or a mother—that would turn me homicidal!—but she’s enthralling.

When Isobel Lomax (Dayle Farina, photo, right) showed up, I didn’t much like her, possibly because she’s obviously horning in on someone I’ve taken a shine to. Isobel is tall, trim, nicely turned out, and professional, and like all successful professionals, slightly intimidating. She reminds me of a number of people I’ve known—prissy, polished—and worked with—long-suffering, with nose down to the relentless grindstone of negotiation, one bloody inch at a time. Of course in a working world, one must disguise one’s distaste and view her actions logically; in so doing, one discovers she is quite correct. I see I must give ground. Grudgingly, I give up one half inch of my dislike.

Somewhere in the second act I realized I quite admired Izzy. The whole darn thing is a performance—it’s surprising to see how smoothly she’s made me forget I’m watching a play.

Robin, the camera person (Nancy Benson), has few words, yet she is a fully contributing member of the cast; she manages to deliver several comic lines without a word spoken. Her costume is outstanding. Whoever got the bright idea to dress her up like that? Robin is what amazes me about the conjuring act that is theâtre—how did Robert and Nancy and Marjorie take square black letters from a plain white piece of paper and create Robin? She has to be seen to be believed.

In his blurb in the programme, Coley Grundman (playing Stephen Biddle) mentions that this is the first performance in many years where song hasn’t been an integral part of his performance. In fact in this production, he goes further—much of what he communicates to us doesn’t use any words at all. Even during the play I was aware of how much I concentrated to keep my eye on his eyebrows—whether he was speaking or not. He has me convinced I’ll regret missing something otherwise.

If the character who changes most is the star, then the show is about Stephen, though one arrives at this notion rationally, not because the story seems so. Stephen rushes through a range of emotions: from anxiousness to self-conceit to cynicism, from energetic to beleaguered—all believably.

Coley, though he’s not singing, still manages to dance with his usual dexterity; Stephen becomes quite adept at railroading the ladies’ actions, if only to keep the combatants apart. Though the ladies’ “fights” seem natural, the movement onstage is as well choreographed as a dance.

The set, props, set changes, and lighting all look very simple—yet they do an excellent job of convincing us we are where we are not. We’re not at the Masquers, we’re sitting in the audience for a TV show. It’s very clever.

If you like slapstick, you’ll enjoy this play from the moment the curtain rises. But, even if you don’t, there’s a lot to enjoy.

How did you feel about the play? Comments are welcome.

Kitchen Witches was performed Jan 22 - Feb 27, 2010, at the Masquers Theatre in Point Richmond, California. This review was also published in This Point In Time (TPIT), Vol. XXVIII-4, Feb 2010, a publication of the Point Richmond History Association.

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RE: Your review, look up the definition of slapstick - then look up the definition of satire. You may want to rewrite your review after having been enlightened upon the differance.

Theresa de Valence's picture

Sorry, but it struck me as slapstick, which is why I used that word. Unless, of course, you meant a satire of slapstick ... ;)

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