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The Cook by Elyse Dommer

Time changes. . . things move. A cookbook stays the same
--- Gladys, the Cuban servant for whom cookbooks have been as liberating as any revolutionary manifesto.
Zabryna Guevara as Gladys & Jason Madera as Carolos
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Eduardo Machado's The Cook which opened at INTAR 53, dishes up a very human history lesson. This cook's view tour of Cuba from Fidel Castro's overthrow of Cuba's Battista regime in 1958 through 1997, begins with two men and a young woman passing around trays of fried plantains (according to the press materials, at some performances the appetizers might change to Cuban croquettes and small meat pastries). The servers are not part of wait staff at the Havana Central Restaurant, which is supplying the theater with these goodie, but cast members Jason Madera, Jason Quarles and Nilaja Sun.

The audience participation stops as Mr. Machado's upstairs-downstairs (mostly downstairs) saga begins. However, Gladys (Zabryna Guevara), the title character, never stops slicing and dicing delicacies even as the kitchen in which the story unfolds shows sign of deterioration as preparations for a lavish 1958 New Year's Eve Party shift to scenes during the Castro regime between 1972 and 1997. There's no credit for aroma effects, but by the time the intermission rolls around, the theater is permeated with enticing scents.

The constant food preparation may make this sound like a cooking demonstration masquerading as a play. It isn't. Unlike Omnium Gatherum in which the central metaphor of an elegant sort of Last Supper misfired (Review), the emphasis on food in The Cook' is not just a trendy gimmick.

The kitchen setting and a title character who is as passionate about her cooking as her macho husband Carlos (Jason Madera) is about Castro's revolution, makes for an engaging and personal view of forty years of Cuban history. Despite some credibility gaps, the linking of the revolution's ups and downs to those in the marriage of Gladys and Carlos works, and their marital trajectory is enlivened by several subsidiary characters: Adria (Maggie Bofill), the mansion's owner; Julio (Jason Quarles), Gladys's gay cousin; and Lourdes and Elena (Maggie Bofill and Nilaja Sun in double roles) representing the second generation.

The play's three scenes make big leaps in time, each bringing enormous changes to the world outside and inside the big, well-equipped kitchen; but as Gladys says of one of the cookbooks she so assiduously studies "Time changes things. . . things move. . . a cookbook stays the same." And so, as Gladys's preparations for her mistress's fancy New Year's party give way to simpler and smaller meals for her own family and, eventually, for guests of the mansion-turned-restaurant, Gladys continues to execute recipes that have imprinted themselves in her memory.

All three scenes contrast the hustle and bustle inside the mansion with the more volatile happenings in the street outside. In the opening scene, the tension of a world about to explode and the power that is about to shift from Batista to Castro, is reflected in the relationship of Gladys and Carlos. She rules the kitchen -- and Carlos. While she clearly adores him, she hushes his revolutionary talk.

The appearance of Adria, the mistress of the manor, make it clear that Carlos' hopes are about to become reality. The interaction between cook and mistress also echoes the disappointments that will attend the revolution Gladys's belief that she and Adria are friends is bolstered by the fact that Adria helped her to rise from lowly servant to "great cook" and confides in her about a much longed for pregnancy. When Adriana enters the kitchen before fleeing the country she is wearing in a mink coat that Cuba's climate hardly warrants. Declaring that "a cold reality has entered this room" she makes Gladys swear to preserve her home.

When we return to the kitchen a second time, fourteen years have passed and even though Gladys hasn't had a single letter from Adria, she is looking after her home as promised -- but only because the revolution has elevated Carlos from lowly (and lazy) chauffeur to Vice-Minister of Transportation. The power in the kitchen, like the power outside, has shifted. Carlos, emboldened by his new situation, has a pregnant mistress whom he now insists on bringing to live in the mansion. The cost of the revolution is further reflected in the threat of imprisonment for Gladys' flamboyantly gay cousin Julio (Jason Quarles) who at one point poignantly reflects "I thought the revolution was also going to include me."

The play's final twenty-five-year leap forward brings another inevitable change in the status of the mansion and the Gladys-Carlos relationship. As Castro, desperately in need for ways to replace the financial resources formerly supplied by the Soviet Union, has invited back the tourists he chased away which led to the mansion's transformation into a gourmet restaurant. The marriage has settled into a comfortable rapprochement with a much mellowed Carlos, retired and without the sort of pension his once powerful post promised, dicing onions and declaring "We've come full circle-- you get to boss me around the kitchen again." His mistress has fled to America and her daughter Rosa (Nilaja Sun in her second role) has become their daughter. Inevitably too, there's closure to the relationship between Gladys and Adria and I'm hardly giving anything away when I tell you that it has something to do with finally turning Gladys into a revolutionary who lays claim to what she has earned.

Mr. Machado has stated in interviews that his plays are not about plot but about the intangible quality of "what happens between characters." The evolving relationship of Gladys and Carlos fulfills that aim. Zabryna Guevara and James Madera (his is an especially winning performance) make this couple real people rather than just mouthpieces for opinions and theories about the Cuban revolution, loyalty and identity.

The credibility gaps mentioned earlier revolve around the predictable shattering of Gladys's unshakable belief in the rightness of her pledge to Adria. This is not a stupid woman and surely not having a communication of any kind in four decades would stir at least a niggling of doubt. More troublesome still is the second role played by Maggie Bofill. She's fine as the imperious Adria of the first scene, but her Lourdes in the final scene is, of all the characters, the one who comes off more mouthpiece than believably flesh-and-blood. The problem is in her acting and peevish college girl accent and how she's been directed by Michael John Garcés, whose direction is otherwise solid. If you do your arithmetic, Lourdes should be thirty-nine years old yet she looks to be in her twenties, and thus would be more believable if she were third not second generation Cuban-American. Making Lourdes' never seen husband a typically Ugly American strikes another off note, especially since it was supposedly he who urged her to seek out her roots.

While I'm nitpicking, Guevara and Madera do their best to make the transition from ages of approximately thirty to seventy, most seventy-year-olds really don't hobble around or have thin shaky voices. This being a realistic play and since the program features a wig and makeup designer (Marisa DeTeresa), a gray wig for Gladys and a gray mustache and beard for Carlos would not have been out of order.

The INTAR is a very intimate space which somehow gives Antje Ellermann's kitchen a just right feeling of spaciousness, and lighting designer Kirk Bookman floods the kitchen with sunlight at all the appropriate moments. Though the action never leaves the single set there are extensive prop movements required between scenes which are transformed into pleasant interludes by José Conde's original incidental music.

I wish they'd given a recipe for those delicious fried plantains (which are actually not on the various dishes prepared during the play). They'd make a nice addition for Thanksgiving dinner.

The Cook arrives Off-Broadway as Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer-prize winning Anna In the Tropics has begun its Broadway run. Like Machado's Havana is Waiting it is about Cuban Americans, but goes back to a much earlier era.

The Cook

Written by Eduardo Machado
Directed by Michael John Garcés
Cast: Zabryna Guevara (Gladys), Jason Madera (Carlos), Jason Quarles (Julio), Nilaja Sun (Rosa/Elena) and Maggie Bofill (Adria/Lourdes).
Set Design: Antje Ellerman (Lighting Design), (Costume Design) and (Sound Design)
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Sound Design: David M. Lawson
Original Music: José Conde
Wigs and Makeup: Marisa DeTeresa
Running time: 2 hours plus 15 minute intermission
INTAR, 508 W. 53rd Street (west of 10th Avenue), 212/ 279-4200
11/12/03 to 12/21/03--extended to 1/04/04; opening 11/20/03.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8PM; Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3PM.
All tickets: $25.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 15th press performance

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