“Cooking with Elisa”

Play: “Cooking with Elisa”

Group: Upstream Theater

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand

Dates: January 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23

Tickets: From $15 to $25; contact 314-863-4999 or upstreamtheater@sbcglobal.net

Story: Nicole is preparing for a long-delayed vacation. The resident cook at a sprawling ranch in the Argentinean countryside, Nicole’s stern and rigid demeanor accepts nothing less than excellence. Therefore, she is annoyed when “Madame” personally selects a young itinerant worker to apprentice with Nicole in preparation for when the chef is away and Elisa will be cooking for Madame and Monsieur and their visitors.

The middle-age, unattached Nicole poorly conceals her contempt for her protégé, an illiterate but attractive lass who grows increasingly bold in her responses to her brutish tutor. As it becomes apparent to Nicole that Elisa has won the affections of Madame, a source of consolation for the lady amid the violent world of her belligerent husband, the cook takes particular delight in emphasizing the brutality behind the preparation of dishes that cater to Monsieur’s specific tastes for various wildlife. When Elisa becomes pregnant, Nicole senses that the impending baby may provide an additional threat to her own place in the desolate setting.

Highlights: Written by Argentine playwright Lucia Laragione in 1993 and adapted by Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm, this chilling and beguiling fable is given a first-rate rendering in its American premiere. It’s played out on an eye-poppingly dense kitchen set designed in stunning fashion by Scott Neale, with the notable assistance of props and scenic artist Kim Wilson, that is a character in and of itself.

It’s a most violent and nasty character at that, filled with hanging carcasses and bloody cleavers that belie the pastoral appearance of vegetables and spices which adorn nearby baskets and shelves. Combined with Laragione’s violent, graphic language that is filled with aggressive, bellicose and dark references to the hunting and killing of all sorts of creatures, it sets the table for the delicious entrée of exquisite performances by actresses Jane Paradise and Shanara Gabrielle under Bonnie Taylor’s tasty, well-seasoned and richly flavored direction.

Other Info: The informative program notes by Taylor and Washington University professor emeritus and noted food writer John Garganigo offer pensive observations about the political climate in which writers such as Laragione have written in their native Argentina under threat of punishment by reactionary regimes for decades, often masking their opinions in allegories. Regardless, Laragione’s tense script peels like an onion as it reveals an increasingly disturbing setting that is a satisfying meal of its own as a gruesome, Gothic adventure.

Paradise superbly conveys Nicole’s nasty and psychologically unstable personality, brandishing kitchen utensils with a venal gusto that delights in slaughter for its own sake. The slow disintegration of her tightly wound world in the presence of Elisa’s free spirit is both fascinating and scary to watch.

Gabrielle is equal to the task as the coltish ingénue. Her initial timidity is gradually replaced with growing self-confidence, not only in her own abilities but also in her assessment of her teacher’s personality flaws. The give-and-take between the two is absorbing and intriguing throughout.

Michele Siler’s costumes depict both class and culture, Ann Wrightson provides evocative lighting and the sound design that helps the audience envision wild boar hunts and other frenzied forays is a collaboration between Boehm, Lydia Ruffin and Josh Limpert. Special kudos go to cooking consultant Sharon Tutko for the continual busy work in the kitchen.

Upstream’s mission is “to move you, and to move you to think.” Boehm and his cohorts accomplish that with elan in this provocative, compelling presentation.

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.