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STAGE REVIEW : Big Kitchen Dishes Up Right Recipe

Handled deftly, the one-act play can be like a short story or a lyric poem: a brief tapestry of words just long enough to create a mood, stimulate a feeling or stab into one’s consciousness. One word and one gesture longer and the mood is spoiled. The proper delivery requires an understanding of minimalism that is all too rare in a medium in which show business and theater are so often intertwined.

The concept, too, that less is more, is unusual in a country where bigger is so often mistaken for better.

The Big Kitchen Dessert Theatre has understood perfectly the concept of less is more from its inception, with the modestly produced “Conversations in Exile” and “Counting the Ways.” It continues what one hopes (if San Diego is lucky) will become a tradition with two one-act plays, “Drowning” by Maria Irene Fornes and “Striptease” by Slawomir Mrozek.

Both works are short, the whole program is only 75 minutes--and one wouldn’t want them any longer. “Drowning” sets up two men, Roe (Eric Grischkat) and Pea (Kevin O’Neill), sitting at the Big Kitchen counter, drinking coffee. We see at once that they are different from the rest of us; they wear brown nylon masks over their faces stuffed in the cheek area to look like warts. Their hands are covered with the brown nylon in such a way that they look webbed.

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The older man, Roe, who is reading a newspaper, accepts himself as he is. The younger one, Pea, is puzzled and disturbed as to why he looks the way he does. He sees a picture of a beautiful girl in Roe’s newspaper, and Pea longs for her, agonizing even further about his appearance. Director Binnur Karaevli doesn’t tell us if these people walked out of a science fiction sketch or if they are outsiders, aliens or just anyone who feels shut out, for reasons they can’t understand, from their dreams.

What is conveyed through these two fine actors is a musical delivery of poignancy and pain. O’Neill’s yearning and frustration is palpable yet so finely drawn it pushes thought upward and outward rather than dragging it down. Grischkat’s compassion and frustration that he cannot help his friend from “drowning” in his sorrow, is a complementary ache.

With “Striptease,” the viewers, after adjourning for a Big Kitchen dessert, move with this same team into another room of the Big Kitchen, for an existential pause.

Now Grischkat and O’Neill, playing Mister 1 and Mister 2, are two identically dressed men with briefcases who have been waylaid in a room for reasons they don’t understand by a mysterious “hand” (a giant hand held by a black-clothed and masked John Highkin who also has a cameo part in “Drowning”).

Grischkat’s response to the terror is to remain passive. If he doesn’t try to open the door to escape he retains his inner freedom to choose or not choose escape. O’Neill’s Mister 2 tries everything he can, racing for the doors (which suddenly lock against him), to hitting the floor with his shoe (which causes the hand to demand their shoes), to rolling up his pants legs and pretending to be a fisherman (which causes the hand to demand their pants).

Are they hostages in Beirut? Are they Kafkaesque hostages in life? Prisoners of a government? Or prisoners of their own minds? Again, the play doesn’t answer these questions, but like the good poem, with many overlays of meaning, it can and does touch all those possibilities at once.

As for the production values, it may seem odd to praise lighting for its virtual non-existence. And a set for being no more than a bench in an already existing restaurant. But the continuing delight of these Big Kitchen shows is how they remind us of how little is needed to create theatrical magic. Some well chosen words, some fine acting and sensitive directing--one doesn’t need much more than this. Of course having some of the best desserts in town between the acts doesn’t hurt either.

“STRIPTEASE,” by Slawomir Mrozek

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“DROWNING,” by Maria Irene Fornes

Director, Binnur Karaevli. Hands, Marisa Elicone. Masks, Kevin O’Neill. With Eric Grischkat, Kevin O’Neill and John Kighkin. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, through May 19. Tickets are $15. At 3003 Grape St., San Diego, (619) 235-9756.


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