BWW Review: South Coast Repertory Serves Slow Burning Food Drama AUBERGINE
With the holiday season now in full force for the remainder of the year, the occasion reminds us all that such gatherings with family and friends are almost always coincidentally adjacent to the serving, preparation, and consumption of delicious, meticulously-created food. And why not? Food is can be a shareable pastime, a chance for people to bond over anything as small as a snack all the way to huge feast.
More importantly, food is not just something we consume for survival. For many, food can represent a lifestyle. It can be someone's profession. It can be someone's obsession. It can even become someone's curated Instagram subject.
For certain cultures, food is also a huge part of one's ethnic or tribal identity and, therefore, a means for representation as well as communication in some instances. But food can also be the source of comfort, and, at times, it can even bring people closer together when other aspects cannot. This is perhaps why people tend to bring casseroles at a wake---it's basically a comforting embrace and a shoulder to cry on disguised as something that can physically fill your belly.
These themes surrounding the emotional resonance of food is the overarching raison d'être for playwright Julia Cho's 2016 play AUBERGINE, which continues performances at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through November 16, 2019. In her introspective, cautiously-paced play, food is used as a means for bonding and connection---because standard communication by other methods doesn't seem to be as effective in conveying one's feelings.
The play begins with a first-person testimonial from self-described "foodie" Diane (Joy DeMichelle), describing with caffeinated gusto, what is essentially a positive Yelp review disguised as a fond, cherished memory of eating a delicious sandwich made by her father. For her, nothing in the world tastes as good as that one home-made sandwich---not solely because of its ingredients nor its method of preparation, but because of the feeling that food evokes. Similar to what triggers hard-to-please food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, the best kind of food is only as great as the memories it evokes.
Oddly enough, this brief nostalgic speech has only a little bit to do (at least not on the onset) with the drama that unfolds soon after (we don't see Diane again until the end of the play to provide "closure"). The monologue, however, does serve as an unofficial pre-introduction to the notion that food can have the ability to stir up emotions.
The real, uh, meat of AUBERGINE actually involves Ray (Jinn S. Kim), a young hipster chef who recently discovers that his estranged father (Sab Shimono)---who was never a fan of his son's career choice---is severely ill with cirrhosis of the liver, and is at the end stages of his life. With no one else to care for him, Ray reluctantly sets up a hospital bed for his father in his own dining room, the only room in his cramped, bachelor-looking apartment large enough to accommodate the new arrangement.
Quieter in demeanor for others but clearly bottling up his emotions, Ray fills his days with inward, personal concerns, which explains why this new arrangement with a contentious father that he always found difficult to connect with extra challenging now that he's even more ornery and incoherent.
For his part, It is plain to see that Ray is himself quite introverted and doesn't seem to trust the world.
To help out occasionally, Ray welcomes visits from Lucien (Irungu Mutu), a former refugee turned hospice nurse with no shortage of wise, philosophical musings about the human condition that he generously doles out to the often exasperated-looking Ray. Lucien's zen, guru-like speeches serve as snippets of analysis and counsel he thinks Ray needs.
Soon, a much-needed jolt of electricity is introduced in the form of Ray's newly arrived, boisterously expressive Uncle (Bruce Baek), a whirling dervish that swooshes in suddenly from Korea to visit his dying brother. The Uncle's arrival no-so-subtly reiterates Ray's bad luck when it comes to communication. He's been unable to talk to his father because he's barely lucid, and now he can't communicate with his Uncle because Ray doesn't speak Korean.
In a panic, Ray swallows his pride and convinces his extremely patient ex-girlfriend Cornelia (a wonderful Jully Lee) to act as temporary translator between him and his Uncle, a task she eventually agrees to do, perhaps, because deep down she still loves and cares for him.
It is, of course, an understandably awkward ask since Ray and Cornelia haven't exactly had much communication since their break-up. Through a flashback, we learn Cornelia and Ray met each other when she worked with Ray at a restaurant, where she championed him being a chef. The irony of the whole situation is that Ray can now resume communications with Cornelia by her becoming his communicating bridge to his Uncle. Ah, the motif is truly spinning every which way.
His Uncle's first, most important piece of communication: Ray must cook his father a soup dish made with a turtle, an odd but not unheard of bit of cuisine they enjoyed as children growing up in Korea. Cooking the dish, his Uncle contends, may just be the right medicine to perk up his father---not cure him, of course, but at least give him some emotional relief.
Despite his training in the finest culinary methods, the thought of making turtle soup is baffling to Ray. Funny thing... his father has never respected him choosing to be a chef, and now it is Ray's skills as a chef that may be the only way for him to bond with his toughest critic. At the very least, Ray is willing to try if it means connecting with his Dad before it's too late.
Filled with quiet, introspective moments and poetically-delivered exchanges, AUBERGINE is both effectively touching and yet, at times, can feel slightly sleepy. Director Lisa Peterson---taking precise cues from Cho's purposely contextual words---has staged a tranquil drama where it forces the audience to serenely absorb the proceedings in very composed moments, almost as if to try to form and capture a memory of the speeches and scenes as Moving Pictures. Along the way, not much really happens, staging wise, but a lot more is said---or, even, not said.
The accomplished work of the awesome acting ensemble is fairly evident, allowing the audience to really absorb every nuance of this sort of slow burn of a drama. AUBERGINE moves forward with plenty at its own easy pace, but at times, a lot of talking and thinking can get a bit, well, sleepy. When the spirited Baek arrives, the play finally gets a much needed splash of caffeine. Luckily, Lee and Kim's scenes hold enough tension to keep things intriguing for the audience's attention, while Mutu's magical bon mots offer warmth, cheer, and a bit of kindness (not to mention the titular vegetable of the play).
In this sense, Myung Hee Cho's minimalist scenic and costume design mimic the kind of quiet attitude of the play, with Peter Maradudin's lighting design and Yee Eun Nam's projections to artificially add some life to the stillness of the scenes.
Much of Cho's style involves placing equal importance to her beautifully composed words and the layered silences in between that seem to convey just as many things. This is quite evident in AUBERGINE, which, overall, accomplishes its goal to showcase our understandable inability to truly communicate with one another, stifling our own forward mobility in the process.
Food, ironically, can speak volumes in its own unique way, which Cho taps into for her characters. Yes, it's true... one bite can say so much more than words could ever do, especially if it reminds you of a moment you will never forget.
Ultimately poignant and movingly poetic despite its often sluggish machinations, AUBERGINE is another accomplished drama from such a talented voice in theater, and another excellent production from her champions at South Coast Repertory.
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Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
South Coast Repertory presents AUBERGINE by Julia Cho. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Performances continue at South Coast Repertory through November 16, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.