With the U.S. premier of Laragione's award winning play, Cooking with Elisa, Upstream Theatre Company is charged with delivering the author's response to a violent period in Argentina's history known as the "Dirty War," where thousands of students, activists, journalists, among others considered to be "left wing," were killed or disappeared between 1976 and 1983. Although Upstream succeeds in creating the ominous look and feel of the play, director Bonnie Taylor and her cast fall a bit short in executing a well-balanced and hearty production.
The play's most savory ingredient is undoubtedly the set, designed by Scott C. Neale. Neal creates a rustic, beautifully layered kitchen decorated from floor to ceiling with the necessary accoutrements of a well seasoned chef. His attention to detail offers a wealth of opportunities for actresses Shanara Gabrielle and Jane Paradise to add depth and dimension to their performances. Unfortunately, neither actress takes full advantage of the backdrop Neal creates, and as a result, misses out on opportunities to round out their performances.
As the sociopathic chef de maison Nicole, actress Jane Paradise seemingly focuses her character in such a dark and disturbed place that seldom is she able to pull out of that darkness and reveal her character's vulnerability. Although excellent at portraying the manic side of her character, Paradise is not as successful at layering in softer, more subtle moments that could have made the play's finale less predictable.
Playing opposite Paradise is Shanara Gabrielle, who in the midst of her counterpart's thunderous performance is able to remain strong and steady in her role as Elisa, the young migrant laborer sent to work under Chef Nicole. While Gabrielle delivers a palatable performance, she neglects to provide her character with a youthful naiveté during the first half of the play. Had she done so, Gabrielle would have given her character a stronger build leading up to the play's dark finale.
Perhaps much is lost in the English translation of Lucia Laragione's work, or perhaps Director Bonnie Taylor is unable to provide a sense of time and place that makes both origin and destination of the characters clear. In fact, any historical or political references intended by the author are dissolved by the lack of markers that would allow for such discovery. Failure to provide a strong point of reference, coupled with missed performance opportunities is ultimately why Upstream is unable to deliver a thought-provoking piece of theatre with Cooking with Elisa.
You can catch remaining performances of Upstream Theater Company's Cooking with Elisa at the Kranzberg Arts Center through January 23rd. For tickets and information you may visit them on the web at www.upstreamtheatre.org.