BWW Review: RAGING SKILLET at TheaterWorks
What do you get when you take one part book launch/cooking demonstration, add a heaping helping of auto-biographical comedy, mix in a portion of supernatural Jewish mother guilt and a strong dose of irreverence? In TheaterWorks' world premiere production of Jacques Lamarre's RAGING SKILLET, this recipe adds up to an evening of pure entertainment - one where audiences get their fill of stories, laughs, and if they are lucky, a taste of some of Chef Rossi's signature "anti-catering" dishes.
RAGING SKILLET introduces the audience to Chef Rossi (Dana Smith-Croll), the real-life, punk-rock, lesbian, Jewish caterer from New York through a cooking demonstration and book launch celebrating the release of her new autobiographical book "The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi." She is backed by her friend, sous chef, and part-time DJ, DJ Skillit (George Salazar) who provides the soundtrack (and what a soundtrack!) to the evening. And though her evening of cooking and sharing stories from her book starts off to plan, it is quickly thrown for a loop by the arrival of her Jewish mother (Marilyn Sokol) who has been dead for over 25 years and who simply couldn't miss the big event.
Over the course of the evening, Chef Rossi walks the audience through the story of how she became the chef and caterer she is today. Beginning with a rebellion against her mother's microwave, through her tempestuous teenage years, her first experiences in a professional kitchen, and finally her big break as a caterer, she paints a vivid picture of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her subsequent journey of discovery. Punctuating (and illustrating) these stories are some of the signature dishes that hold significance for Chef Rossi including Pizza Bagels, Chicken on a Ritz, and Manischewitz spritzers, just to name a few, which she creates live on stage and passes out to the audience when done. Throughout, her mother hovers, adds her own commentary, and protests whenever the stories become too personal or Rossi's language becomes too salty (which happens frequently). And DJ Skillit pops up to add sound effects, provide the soundtrack to Rossi's life and to play any other character needed for a particular story.
In RAGING SKILLET, playwright Jacques Lamarre captures the true essence of Chef Rossi and brings her story to life in such a creative and hilarious way. He has taken the tales from her book and amplified them by giving Rossi the ability to share the stage with her long-dead mother. This dynamic not only provides hilarious banter and conflict, but also helps us see some of the roots of Rossi's style and that behind many successful people is likely a strong-willed and opinionated mother. Lamarre gets the dialogue between Rossi and her mother just right, peppered with a healthy portion of Yiddish and expletives, the audience sees and hears the frustration mixed with an underlying sense of loss and yearning - and, in the end, comes away with a keen sense of this interesting and unique woman and the woman who helped her become who she is today.
As Chef Rossi, Dana Smith-Croll creates a character who is equally comfortable in a biker bar as she is in the kitchen. Her portrayal is empowered but vulnerable, and her energy and enthusiasm for the stories she is telling (and the food she is making) is quite believable. But most of all, she truly embodies Chef Rossi. There were many times during the show that I caught myself forgetting that I was not listening to the real Rossi, and I even overheard one patron tell Ms. Smith-Croll after the show "I bought your book!", forgetting that she was simply an actor portraying the character on stage. As DJ Skillit, George Salazar has the task of adding color commentary to Rossi's stories as well as ensuring the music (and sound effects) compliment the action. Mr. Salazar also plays whatever character is needed for the tale at hand, whether that be Rossi's father, siblings, a Russian gangster, or any number of supporting characters. He is quite funny and brings a frenetic, but infectious energy to the stage. Finally, Marilyn Sokol is absolutely brilliant as Rossi's mother. Her timing is impeccable, her facial expressions alone elicit laughs, and her banter with her daughter is comedic gold. While in other, less-skilled hands, Rossi's mother could be reduced to a simple stereotype (overbearing Jewish mother), in Ms. Sokol's portrayal she is a real, genuine, and loveable person - someone I wanted to get to know more. This is made even more poignant when the audience learns more about her fascinating life late in the show. Sure she does and says things that might seem expected from her character, but she does so in such a brilliant and honest way. She truly shines.
John Simpkins' direction works well for the space and his use of the kitchen setting to serve as both cooking demonstration and the kitchens of Rossi's past works extremely well. Speaking of the setting, Michael Schweikardt's set is really great. His fully functional (and well-designed) kitchen serves the story well. John Lasiter's lighting, especially small touches such as the book chapter titles, add to the experience. Finally, Julian Evans's sound design plays a large role in RAGING SKILLET, expressing Rossi's stories with exactly the right sound (and song).
Overall, TheaterWorks' RAGING SKILLET is a unique and exciting piece of theater. It is hilariously funny, irreverent and fascinating, and presented in an exciting and different way. All the ingredients are there for a fresh and refreshing hit - strong and interesting characters, fascinating stories, and a dash of "different" making for a truly delicious evening.
RAGING SKILLET runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through August 27. TheaterWorks is located at 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838 or go to theaterworkshartford.com.