[Ed. note: First seen at Lookingglass Theatre Company in 2012, this flashy mashup of dinner theater, circus arts and celebrity chef Rick Bayless has returned for an encore run in the Goodman Theatre's Owen Theatre studio space. What follows is Time Out Chicago associate editor and theater critic Kris Vire (that's me) and former food & drink editor Julia Kramer's joint assessment of the original staging, as I chose not to re-review. I stand by our original take, though it's definitely worth noting for the record that we didn't have to pay face value.—KV]
Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Cascabel combines dining and performance in a way that aims to change how you think of dinner theater. Frontera Grill guru Rick Bayless cocreated the high-dollar, limited-run event along with Lookingglass artistic associate and circus-arts master Tony Hernandez and ensemble member Heidi Stillman. As TOC’s Theater editor and associate Food & Drink editor, we attended together and hashed out our impressions the next day via IM.
Julia Kramer I was surprised how much of a restaurant environment they created in the theater: I didn’t expect that we would be chatting while eating as if we were at a dinner party.
Kris Vire Yeah, there’s a good balance of “watching time” versus “eating time.”
JK And by “watching time,” you mean watching Rick Bayless chop the same vegetable over and over again, right?
KV I’ve got to admit I was a little worried at first about him chopping while acting. Not that I doubt the man’s knife skills, but when he’s clearly been given the direction to chop angry, that says danger to me.
JK What did you like better: Bayless’s mole or Bayless’s dancing?
KV Definitely the mole. Though I enjoyed his dancing in a different way. What did you think of the interplay between cooking and performance? The scent of Bayless’s mole cooking onstage while we watched the bathtub hand-balancing act seemed deliberate.
JK Yeah, this is, I think, the heart of the show, no? The idea that Raul’s (Rick’s) cooking has a special—specifically, erotic—power. Character eats Raul’s food; character explodes into sexually charged acrobatics. This is sort of mimicked as an audience member: You eat Rick’s food; you watch an exciting scene. At the beginning I felt a little like I was eating at a strip club, but I got used to it. In the end the interplay between things (e.g., the smell of food during the bathtub performance) was the most interesting part. I mean, it was a good meal. It wasn’t really much of a play (feel free to disagree). But the overall experience felt one-of-a-kind.
KV Yeah, the meal is good (I personally loved the ceviche, even if it was too spicy for the poor old ladies sitting next to us at the communal-style table), and the narrative connecting the specialty acts is the thinnest this side of a Cirque du Soleil performance—which is essentially what this is, but much more intimate and with the added engagement of taste and smell making it unique.
JK By intimate, you mean one of the actors poured you a glass of wine while suspended from the ceiling.
KV I did grow a little weary of the maître d’ character telling us how each dish should be making us feel.
JK To read that generously, at times I felt the maître d’ was delivering a clever parody on the overinformative way servers at restaurants tend to describe dishes. (But I doubt that.) I liked the ceviche, too, although I didn’t understand pairing it with popcorn except as a visual tease (why not tortilla chips?). And while I thought the mole was impressive and the beef tenderloin was perfectly cooked, the food had a little bit of a “banquet” quality to it—which I think had to do with the constraints of the space.
KV Right, it has to be prepared off-site in a licensed kitchen. Not sure how that could be avoided short of staging the show in one of Bayless’s restaurants, which I imagine aren’t rigged for tightropes.
JK Were you surprised by Bayless’s limited speaking role?
KV A little, if only because the show’s advertised as “Rick Bayless in Cascabel,” but he spends most of it in the background.
JK He’s super into yoga; I would have loved to have seen a headstand or something, you know? But I did love watching him dance at the end. Very charming.
KV I’d say the same about the whole experience.