Story: An unnamed chef goes about her tasks in quiet, orderly fashion. She seems in control and pleased with the work that she does. She’s an upbeat, happy spirit who seems oddly out of place in a tiny room with a lonely, high window and a cot in the corner, with minimal furniture strewn about to alleviate its depressing look.
Then the chef begins to tell her backstory and the alarming events that have brought her to this prison cell. She’s had a hellish life, a terrible upbringing at the brutish hands of an abusive father who would show up for dinner at home every five years or so and then one day unexpectedly took young chef with him on one of his maritime voyages.
Chef couldn’t quite balance a bowl of soup and some bread she had made for the boat workers on the deck, spilling the meal when a wave unexpectedly hit. A cabin mate saved her life when he volunteered to mop up the mess, interrupting her violent father’s vicious attempt to strangle her.
Chef probably inherited her good nature from her meek mother, because when she went out on her own she had a penchant for hiring young women in need. When one of the girls, from a horrific background with a hellish personal tragedy, loses her fragile grip on sanity, chef is blamed for what follows.
You might think that this talented woman is swimming hopelessly upstream against insurmountable circumstances and the unfairness of life. It would be advised, though, that you not bet against her.
Highlights: Upstream Theater delivers a powerful serving with the American premiere of this sizzling, dazzling one-act drama written by English-Egyptian playwright Sabrina Mahfouz. Thanks to the terse direction by Swedish artist Marianne de Pury and a luminescent performance by Linda Kennedy, this one-woman show resonates with brilliance in its haunting, searing melancholy.
Other Info: Kennedy gives a tour de force performance as the disarming title character. She can deliver a comic line with well-honed timing and just as quickly turn the mood of the piece darkly somber as she deadens her face to recall one of the unspeakable incidents which have shaped chef’s sorrowful life “in the dark corners of someone else’s dream.”
She builds tension in a carefully crafted interpretation which exposes plenty of raw nerves in recollections about chef’s absent and terrible father as well as the ill-starred young woman she befriends.
Mahfouz’s story is beautifully written, expertly detailing the steady decline in chef’s life in just one act and 75 minutes that are packed with detail and dimension. Chef was first performed in 2014 and is a sterling example of the prolific poetry and prose written by the still youthful Mahfouz.
Kristin Cassidy’s simple scenic design underscores chef’s bleak existence, swallowed up in a lonely, desolate room. Chef is introduced to us in a bloody frock which she casually removes as she begins her story. Costume designer Laura Hanson adds a pair of colorful, unmatched socks which represent chef’s irrepressible spirit, offsetting that blood-soaked work garment.
Jim Blanton’s raucous sound design is filled with psycho-sounding music and brash noises, while Cassidy adds props to amplify chef’s situation. Tony Anselmo’s lighting is mostly subdued, although allowing for an occasional highlight to briefly recall warmer moments in chef’s life.
De Pury utilizes all of the technical gifts at her disposal to focus the spotlight on Kennedy’s bravura performance, eliciting impressive results.
Chef resoundingly exemplifies Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm’s ongoing goal to introduce theatrical gems from throughout the world to "move" his audiences and "to move (them) to think.” They’re surely the better for that.
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: October 11, 12, 13, 14
Tickets: $25-$35; contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 669-6382
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak