Theater Review: CASCABEL (Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on March 31, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The Lookingglass production of Cascabel is the toughest ticket in Chicago this side of The Book of Mormon. The hook of the show is the menu prepared by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who operates the renowned Frontera Grill among other high end eating establishments in Chicago. The show – officially titled Rick Bayless in Cascabel – is a magnet for foodies, for members of the In Crowd who want to be part of the big buzz show of the season, and for regular playgoers who want to try something completely different, even at prices up to $250 a seat.

The news is that Cascabel raises dinner theater to a level it will likely never approach again in this town. The cuisine mingles with a cluster of stunning circus acts, both held together by a rickety plot that escalates into numerous love stories, all ending joyously as the audience completes its dessert. This is a celebration of the sensuality of food and its consummation; it might sound pretentious, but the show makes a strong case for dining as an almost erotic pleasure, at least if prepared and presented in the Rick Bayless manner.

The Lookingglass interior has been remodeled to recreate the interior of a rustic Mexican rooming house, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the Bayless cookery is the centerpiece of a show. But the evening actually begins in the theater lobby, where the audience is treated to hors d’oeuvres and free margaritas. The patrons then file into the theater to be seated at communal tables on the main floor or at tables for two in the balcony. The three-course dinner commences, separated by intervals allotted to the circus acts and shards of the plot. The food is prepared a few blocks away and delivered warm to the tables, a dazzling logistical achievement for cuisine of this delicacy prepared for so many diners.

Presiding over the entire enterprise is Bayless himself, chopping away at a cutting board in the on-stage kitchen.  Bayless doesn’t actually cook for the 142 paying guests, but he does a bit of acting and even dances at the end. His calling in life is still food preparation but he doesn’t embarrass himself and the man is a charmer, genially mixing with the patrons during and after the show.

The core characters include a smiling and pompous maître d’ (Jesse Perez), a mysterious lady in some kind of mourning (Chiara Mangiameli), a houseboy (Tony Hernandez, also the co-creator and co-director of the show), and the daughter of the house (Lindsay Noel Whiting). Periodically other characters drift onto the stage to execute their circus acts: Whiting starts off the circus portion with some deft aerialist work above the stage, with no safety apparatus; Hernandez manages to change clothes while balancing on a high wire, a sight one rarely sees in a Chicago theater; Alexandra Pivaral does a stunning hand balancing act from a bathtub; and a couple known only as solitary travelers (Nicolas Besnard and Shenea Booth) meet at the rooming house dinner table and immediately engage in a sensuous gymnastic demonstration. Among its other attributes, Cascabel is a very sexy show.

The gardener (Jonathan Taylor) and his wife (Anne Goldmann) deliver a very broad comedy stint, highlighted by catching bits of banana in their mouths as the banana pieces are spit out by their partner; it sounds gross but it’s funny and requires considerable accuracy and dexterity. The Blue Man Group couldn’t do it any better. The other member of the ensemble is Lookingglass star actor Thomas J. Cox, in what must be the most insignificant role of his career as the wooer of the mystery lady.

There is a single menu for everyone with no substitutions and the food itself is rich, highly seasoned and exotic – the individual servings were all very tasty, with the beef entree exceptional. The maître d’ orchestrated the consuming of each dish like Ricardo Muti directing a Beethoven symphony, and the audience cheerfully followed all his directions, down to sticking their noses into the opening course to capture the aroma. This course, if I got it correctly, consisted of ceviche-style tuna over passion fruit custard and avocado crema seasoned by bits of jicama, red onion, and tomatillo, all enclosed in a banana leaf. It’s that kind of upscale meal.

The storyline wraps up quickly at the end, with Mangiameli executing a flashy flamenco dance and everyone in the ensemble joining in on the hoofing. By this time, any wall between actor and viewer had been erased and it was party time. Some patrons doubtless had been nicely lubricated by the free margaritas, plus beer and wine were available in small metal tubs on the tables for the convenience of the diners (water was free but alcoholic beverages were not, and consumers settled up with the waiters at the end of the performance).

A platoon of designers combined to create the superior visual and aural ambience of the show – Mara Blumenfeld and Lijana Wallenda Hernandez (costumes), Brian Bembridge (scenery and lighting), Rick Sims and Andre Pluess (composers and sound design), Maria DeFabo (properties), and Emilee Peterson (choreography). Carlo Basile performs the atmospheric guitar background.

The staging, under Heidi Stillman’s lead directing, is a model of efficiency. The dialogue and the circus acts and the food service flow without a glitch. The plot never elevates itself above the silly and the improbable, but nobody cared. The cumulative effect creates an evening of unbroken pleasure. The audience recognized it was participating in one of the most distinctive events in recent Chicagoland entertainment history and it had a ball.

photos by Sean Williams

Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
ends on April 29, 2012
remount July 30 – August 31, 2014
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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