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Cooking With Elvis
by Rich See
Looking for a screamingly funny show that doesn't know when to stop on its run to excessive bad taste? Cooking With Elvis may be the theatrical treat for you. Woolly Mammoth's newest offering by playwright Lee Hall fills the stage with Elvis, food, and sex. Just not necessarily in that order, but often all at the same time.
From its proscenium stage setting that is reminiscent of a carnival booth, to the side wall covered in blue auto parts the production drives across the stage in high gear. Just fasten your seat belt and enjoy the bumpy ride, since the convoluted plot is wafer thin and it's not until about half way through this dark tale that you realize you're on a comedy merry go round that's not really going anywhere.
Director Tom Prewitt has pulled together a terrific cast to bring playwright Hall's words to the stage. He's got each cast member pulling their weight in an ensemble piece that could float or sink depending upon how well timed the dialogue is and how the physical interactions between the actors flow. It's obvious he has given the production a great deal of time and care. The dancing chef assistants/stage hands, Tiffany Garfinkle and Abby Wood, are a terrific touch that add flare to the staging. His design team looks like it has had a great time in creating the right mood. Robin Stapley's set is a tour de force of Elvis kitsch, Julia Child kitchen, and English flat. Hana Sellers sound design and Colin K. Bills' lighting are an ode to the King of Rock and Roll. This production has as many memorable staging moments as acting moments, the bedroom scene that opens the second act, the Elvis closet, the car parts on the wall that are apparently mementos of Dad's crushing car accident.
Kimberly Gilbert heads the cast as the overweight and emotionally tortured daughter Jill. She's alternately obsessed with and sick of her quadriplegic father, hates her mother, and despises her mother's younger boyfriend. In all her pain she's turned to food and cooking, becoming a gourmet chef while packing on the pounds. Meanwhile Jennifer Mendenhall glams it up as her anorexic, alcoholic mother, Mam. (Think Hyacinth Bucket's sister Rose from the BBC's "Keeping Up Appearances.") Mendenhall fills the bill as the guilt ridden wife who's drowning her tears in sex and drink, while trying to convince herself she's not growing old. Daniel Frith glows as the sexually curious Stewart, who becomes more than just a diversion for Mam. Between sexcapades with almost everyone in the house (well... not the turtle) Frith smoothly alternates between boy toy and misunderstood victim. Rick Foucheux fills the stage as the Elvis impersonating quadriplegic Dad. When he first appears as the baby food spitting, monosyllabic character, you wonder what he saw in the role. It's only when he first emerges from his wheelchair in a dream sequence and begins singing an Elvis standard that you begin to understand the character's allure.
Cooking With Elvis is a production where every scene is filled with both pathos and humor. It's a dark comedy with a light heart and flows well except when there is a sudden change in Elvis' monologues. It's at this point when Singing Elvis becomes Reverend Elvis and starts making bizarre speeches about sodomites that the play begins to wear thin. While this is probably in reference to the gay rumors that continue to swirl around the King of Rock and Roll -- his obsession with James Dean and an alleged affair with actor Nick Adams -- unless you are an Elvis aficionado or gay man, you probably won't know anything about this part of the Elvis mystique. All in all, Cooking With Elvis is a three or four joke comedy that's very dark and exceedingly funny but 30 minutes too long. Go, enjoy, and sing "Love Me Tender."
Editor's Note: Our London critic saw this show when it moved from the Edinburgh Festival to London's West End. You might want to check out that review for more on the show's evolution. Cooking With Elvis in London.
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