Rethinking the Culinary World in “Bollywood Kitchen” @ the Geffen

In a world currently inundated with the most creative and innovative culinary reality shows streaming on cable networks, the Geffen Stayhouse takes a similar leap in presenting “Bollywood Kitchen: Culinary Theatre.”  Distinguished writer/director/producer Sri Rao takes us on a dazzling, delicious journey through his home kitchen in a virtual show where life story meets cooking demo.  One can ‘virtually’ taste the spices of curry, cumin, cocoa, and chai as they sizzle and come to life on screen.  “Bollywood Kitchen,” based on the writer’s book of the same title, is the epitome of theatre in its rawest form.

As we zoom in from our own living room into Rao’s kitchen, we are transported into an intimate space, where we learn the secret recipe to the performer’s signature recipe, chicken curry, his Indian mother’s most prized dish.  The audience immediately feels an emotional connection, as we enter Rao’s comfort zone and visceral memories of childhood, the most acute ones associated with the taste, smell, and nourishment of his cultures’s food, which defined his formative years.  This one man show is a love letter, an homage of appreciation to his parents and a testimony  to the grounded person he has come today, with both roots and wings. As many brilliant Indian directors and screenwriters such as Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala; Salaam Bombay,) this immersive show provides an opportunity to combine the art of cooking and entertainment, sure to please a foodie’s palate and a theatregoer’s experience.  A central task in many spiritual practices is  let go of fixed habits or rigid ideas such as a traditional  theatre space, and the Geffen has faced the challenge of this pandemic in creating the ‘Stayhouse’ format.  The new and unknown, always frightening, is handled amazingly, as we vicariously cook, eat, and live through Sri Rao’s colorful stories and family anecdotes. 

In advance, the Geffen delivers an impressive “chef’s table Bollywood box,” package to the ticket patron’s door, a delectable, essential kit of Indian spices and ingredients, replete with recipe cards. If one dare wishes, he/she has everything needed to follow along with the live cooking demo in theatrical form.  It’s clear how Rao has soul searched and kept true to his identity as  a connection to his ancestors while also crafting his own life, career and passion in his daily work as an actor, performer and writer. Now he can add ‘culinary creator/chef’ to his impressive list of credits. It’s evident he was drawn to this pursuit almost as a calling, a history he never wanted to forget , yet also a way to reinvent and share this enthusiasm with others. The show is a clear, concrete way to offer the precious gift of his culture, a way to make an ordinary act into something extraordinary.  Sri Rao literally brings to the table, the question of ‘who am I?’ and finds the  answer: the power of self love.  The show’s sights and sounds are brilliant and visceral, bursting off the screen. I found myself more than once, craving each dish and drink, inspiring my own culinary endeavors in the future. As Rao explores how his family, immigrants to America adopted their own way of life, to be themselves, work hard, integrate into the culture, yet remain connected to their past, so too, Rao reveals his way to blend into the melting pot and stay secure within his roots, in this innovative theatre construct. 

In front of our eyes, we see this moment of blossoming and transformation. Theatre at its core exceeds all borders, as it taps into a solo show performer’s life journey, and “Bollywood Kitchen” is exquisite in doing just that.  Experimenting and adding trendy twists of flavor to his childhood meals is a defining element of the show, not only revealing the close bond and respect for his parents, but also honoring their tradition. From generation to generation, he embraces his ‘inner Indian’ culture, feeds his soul, and becomes whole.

The central process of much theatre is  self discovery and a coming of age, coming  to terms with childhood and moving forward. Bollywood Kitchen is Rao’s therapeutic way to discover his life purpose.  The story is one part talk/monologue, but chalk full of delicious memories and backstory, allowing each of us to relish and savor the foods and drinks of India’s cuisine, even including the proper way to cup a scoop of curry into the rice, using one’s hands, rather than utensils! He gives his parents the words they never had the chance to say verbally and this show will definitely change the way one thinks about food, love, and life, and how they constantly intertwine. The show is a universal art piece, filled with life lessons and cooking courses, sure to resonate with every culture, gender, and age. It’s a refreshingly new theatre story and premise, and so necessary at this time when we all seek spiritual nourishment and are hungry for meaning.Eat, drink, pray… sit back, have a cuppa chai and go see and taste “Bollywood Kitchen: Culinary Theatre.”

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Richard Shelton Channels Frank in “Sinatra: Raw” at the Sorting Room @ the Wallis

This one man show, performed by the magnificent Richard Shelton, brings one back to the nostalgic, romantic  time when nightclubs such as the Ruby Dunes and the Purple Room in  Palm Springs reigned supreme.  Starring Richard Shelton, who magnificently embodies the essence and aura of ‘ol blue eyes’ himself, the show “Sinatra: Raw” is set in the purple room at the luxurious Club Trinidad in Palm Springs.  His tribute to the late, great Frank Sinatra is a love letter to this legend, especially comforting at this time of the coronavirus.  His show, with soulful words and nostalgic stories down memory lane, reminds us of simpler, gentler times, when people hugged and sat together, cozy in cabaret lounges, not socially distanced through a zoom screen.  Yet, even through this technological medium, we feel Richard’s passion clearly on display.  His amazing ability to belt and croon Sinatra’s classic ‘oldies but goodies,’ like “Fly Me To the Moon,” and “My Way” transports the audience to another place in time.  
Both singers’ (Shelton/Sinatra) enduring, romantic impact on their audience, in the heyday of the nightclub and thereafter, prove their timeless talent as entertainers.  Richard Shelton perfectly portrays all things Sinatra, and brings showbiz royalty back to the stage, as we recall Sinatra’s lasting mark on American culture.  Frank Sinatra is one of the greatest singer/actor of all times, with Richard Shelton doing him complete justice, bar none.  Despite a love life filled with tumultuous romances and tawdry affairs, Frank’s songs were iconic romantic, evoking spark and sizzle.  Shelton’s inflections, voice, smile, authentic American accent are all completely on key, with the precise cadence and understanding Sinatra’s words and moves, which were absolutely brilliant.  He could take a simple song far beyond the surface.  Sinatra’s ability to attract friends far and wide, from kings, celebrities, presidents, and the common folk speaks to his start from humble beginnings in Hoboken to the soaring height of ultimate fame and fortune.  Richard Shelton is like Sinatra himself. He uncannily grasps each idiosyncracy of such an iconic figure, a daunting task indeed.  This talented suave Englishman has taken upon himself an understanding of a legend as American as apple pie, with an impeccable, authentic portrayal. 

The Wallis has gone above and beyond in honoring Frank Sinatra and his remarkable contribution to the great American songbook.  The Sorting Room transforms itself into the Purple Room, as Richard not only sings, sounds, and looks like Sinatra, but his physical mannerisms and energy personify the legend as well.   The beloved songs of the evening were:  “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “A Very Good Year,” “My Foolish Heart,” “I’m A Fool To Want You,” “Angel Eyes,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “That’s Life,” and “My Way.”

What a beautiful way to celebrate, remember, and be transformed to another place and time.

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An Aha Moment to Hold Onto

Lots of layers and intricacies, as revealed in the Braid’s newest show, .   It’s the moment in one’s life that serves as a wake up call, a figurative shofar call.  Now a common, everyday term in the lexicon, aha moments are anything but ordinary. The talented ensemble of Lisa Cirincione, Vicki Juditz, Dion Mucciacito, Brianna Gurdzhyan, and Judy Carter each tell his/her own moment of awakening with each story mesmerizing.  The zoom feature has the amazing ability to make this show feel as if the viewer is in a private living room or salon, the precise intent of the Braid’s productions, from its very start. Writer Maureen Rubin’s  piece, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do“, is a prime example of how, despite a curveball thrown at her, she’s lived her best life, and how her unique experience expands to a universal level, sure to resonate.  An aha is one of inspiration and insight.  Such is the case with Susan Morganstern’ s “Goodnight, My What?,” in which she meets her forever beshert at a steamy bar.  These stories will provoke the viewer to look within and never see a personal, pivotal situation at surface level, going forward. It also gives  our next generation, l’dor v dor, the needed awareness and tools to face similar scenarios.  Ronda Spinak, artistic director, explained during a talk back post show, the depth  of thought and continuity goes into the curation of each show.  “” These  performers bring the best of themselves as they present insights and pearls of wisdom that resonate with each individual viewer in a unique, personal way. Their stories pave the way to learn from life’s curveballs, one prime example being the year of 2020, the unexpected pandemic.  One such vignette, “Can I Feel More Free During Covid?,” written by Emma Peretz, explores the writer’s aha gleanings on her sheltering  in place during the pandemic. Watching this show is the best example of how to unearth an aha moment… and move forward.

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Suspense in the Air in “Citizen Detective” @ the Geffen

“Citizen Detective” is yet another gem from the creative forces at the Geffen Playhouse. Written and directed by Chelsea Marcantel, and featuring Paloma Nozicka and Mike Ostroski, is a suspenseful whodunnit, actively engaging the zoom audience, to solve the crime, just as police often welcome public citizens as supplemental, essential detectives on the case at hand. In this case, audience members are divided into teams (mine was the gut followers). The audience embraces the cues and clues and take the Hollywood murder mystery into their own hands. At first, it may seem like a challenging virtual game of Clue, with viewers jumping into dangerous waters and unchartered territory, but each person discovers his/her own inner instinct; ultimately working together to analyze each detail of the scene of the crime. The two main characters (Nozicka and Ostroski) serve as both guides and foils to help aide in getting to the truth of the matter, yet also at times confuse the teams with twists, turns, and mistaken identities, much in the same style of Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and Rod Serling. Finding the hidden kernel and solving the crime is almost as amazing as the production itself. To get the last piece to the big puzzle is the ultimate reward for all. Citizen journalism and detective work has become all the rage and so necessary in matters of life and death, both on the street and on this stage. In this show, it’s obvious that each audience member gets completely invested, devoting their entire being, mind, and soul into logical deductions, based on both physical evidence and gut instinct. Similar to the recent HBO Max’ “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” intriguing problems and cases can take experienced police forces 30 years to solve, and stymie breakthroughs, until ‘citizen detectives’ and ‘third eyes’ step in. Everybody loves a scintillating game of clue or whodunnit, especially during a stifling pandemic. “Citizen Detective” is brilliant in inspiring attention to detail among the audience sleuth members in a fun, engaging, interactive virtual escape room on screen. This show will leave you mystified and empowered in one. Get your crime drama/mystery genre game on and check out “Citizen Detective.”

through Feb 7, 2021

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Angel Gains her Wings in “Through My Eyes” @ The Whitefire

Angel (Angel Guice) floats in her own little bubble of light and love, as she performs a soliloquy of liturgical poetry, dance, and song. She conveys to the audience viewing on zoom, an intimate sense of her self perception as goddess warrior, as she emphasizes the phrase, “I am strong.” She practices what she preaches, in the form of a daily affirmation: “I matter. If it is to be, it is up to me.” She relays a personal story of visiting her brother while in jail, eliciting empathy from her audience, even at a social distance. She offers tough love, drizzled with encouragement. Her performance mixes a tone of melancholy with vibrant dialogue and powerful music, presenting a one woman show that is anything but one dimensional. She gives glimpses of her family life and the heirlooms of treasures she has inherited, all in the name of staying alive. She prays aloud for bubble to never deflate, reaching up, stating, “God, you’re up there, so I keep my head up and stay focused. It’s clear, from her passion and presence of mind, that the ‘have nots’ must beat the system to get off the streets to become ‘haves,’ and that the pain should be released and transform into joy. Her wisdom and philosophy enables her to find the light out of her darkness, and in turn, allows the audience members to release internal negativities, finding a clear pathway out of hurt, harm, and danger. At show’s end, she proclaims, when recollecting memories of her life in the projects in Atlanta, “I’ll always be street smart, and that bubble of my family…no one could pop it… til one day…” Angel miraculously transforms from a young woman pained by a first love, to a queen, cherished in a second love.

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Natasha McCrea Tells Her Story & Changes Lives in “Evolution of a Love Addict” @ the Whitefire

Loving…letting go…moving on…finding one’s soulmate. Many a self help book, poem, song, film, and theatre performance has been created on said subject. Now, unlike any other, in a superb class of its own, comes renowned author and love healer Natasha McCrea, reprising her one woman show, “Evolution of a Love Addict.” Having performed this show in 2012 in Atlanta, and then four years later in New York, Natasha now graces the stage in Los Angeles, live-streaming from the Whitefire Theatre. Comparing the show from then to now, she states,”back then it was, let me tell you my story for me; eight years later, it’s let me tell my story for others.” Not only has she evolved from a woman addicted to love, sometimes in all the wrong places, but has evolved into a performer, a talent, a star, glistening on stage, carrying a one woman wonder show, with an important message for audiences to hear. As Natasha retells many an anecdote of her first dates to first loves to first marriages, and then repeating the cycle, she shares the sensitive theme of love and loss, and ‘this too shall pass,’ with such vulnerability and pathos, sure to resonate virtually with each audience member, male and female alike. Between blind date, speed dates and meet ups, she finds one man after another, that she must say ‘puff puff pass,’ until the final vignette in the show, a culmination of sorts, where she finally, and in a quite fulfilling moment, states ‘puff puff exhale!’ In the post show q&a, Natasha told viewers about her writing process, and how journaling her own experiences and life lessons has infused her with the ability to empower and encourage others, as a love coach of sorts. One question posed was: “how do you forgive family and people in past relationships, rather than becoming jaded?” Her response : “its much easier to move on, if you can have open dialogue rather than sweep it under the rug.” In remounting her show in 2020, this talented performer is coming from a new stage in her life, “grounded, centered, loving life, bringing my full self to the table.” This life story, filled with gems of wisdom, is sure to land upright into the hearts and minds ready to receive.

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Tell Your Friends to Go See “Tell Him It’s Jackie” @ Dugan’s Backyard Playhouse

Tom Dugan (Wiesenthal, The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln, Robert E. Lee- Shades of Grey) is an innovative playwright/historian, bringing biopic solo shows to the stage, highlighting iconic historic figures. In “Tell Him It’s Jackie,” Dugan’s current production, being performed in the intimate venue of his own backyard, Kait Haire delivers a spot on, larger than life performance of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. In the post show Q&A, when asked how she impeccably ‘nailed’ Jackie’s exact physical expressions, mannerisms, and accent, Kait  stated, “I consumed numerous videos and documentaries of live footage, garnered after her death, as well as studying Natalie Portman’s portrayal in the film, ‘Jackie.’”  Tom added, “I wanted to give her the three dimensional sense of human being” that she truly embodied.  Not only does Kait physically resemble the late First Lady, but she also captures her aura and essence. The audience does not only see a woman filled with grace and dignity, but also gets a glimpse  of obstacles, drama, and temptations in her personal, private life.
At show’s start, Jackie reveals facts about her unusual upbringing, breeding and college life, comparing the title, First Lady,  to a thoroughbred race horse. She also, in two separate lines of dialogue, explains the myth/reality of her young  son being called John John by the public, while John at home.  Life wasn’t as charmed as it seemed, in Camelot, as depicted by her incessant drinking of scotch and whiskey throughout the show.  A poignant, visceral line of dialogue was “this scotch tastes like tragedy.” Her insecurity and ‘on the verge of suicide’ state of mind is real, as she  throws objects throughout the set, almost breaking lamps, and she describes how on that fateful night, she threw a crystal champagne glass, which shattered her television screen, like ‘glass confetti breaking into tiny pieces,” she recalls. The night is June 5, 1968, when Robert Kennedy is shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. The entire show revolves around Jackie, her reaction that night, while home in New York, and the tension felt by the audience is palpable.  The history of that specific night comes to life once again, center stage, amidst a simple yet detailed set, as Jackie vividly tells her story through tears, shock, and anger.  Each move and gesture tells a thousand stories.  Each word of dialogue precisely depicts Jackie’s intense pain and grief, knocked too many a time by tragedies befalling the Kennedy family.  This period of history is a lot to pack into one single performance.  Adding some much needed levity, she invites a hint of promising new romance into her life with Aristotle 0, towards show’s end.  
Ultimately, Jackie’s story stands for hope, not despair, and she, like each one of us, has a right to be understood.  The playwright, Tom Dugan, is brilliant and masterful at bringing the audience from the worries of current day pandemic to that memorable era, where each viewer is lost in another time and place for at least seventy five minutes, which is truly what good theatre does.

Through Nov. 21

Dugan’s Backyard Playhouse 

Fridays and Saturdays 8pm


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Go Figure “Inside the Box” @ the Geffen

While we have mostly been sheltering in place, trying to solve the mysteries of life amidst a pandemic, puzzler extraordinaire brings it close to home with his all consuming 90 minute interactive zoom show, aptly titled “Inside the Box.” This show brings sparks of clarity and creativity to those who have up til now been puzzled by the concept of ‘virtual theatre.’ Kwong describes himself as spending his whole life obsessed and consumed with an olio of puzzles, ranging from word games that boggle the mind to crosswords and jigsaws. By piecing the pieces together, we can all work as a team to face the enigma of when the “world hit pause,” just six months ago. Kwong goes on to confirm that we all are at our most creative when dealt a curveball or a different set of parameters, and rather than thinking outside the box, we can revert to inside the box, facing each of our teammates, the counterpart squares within the zoom ‘audience.’ The charismatic storyteller pulls out a range of puzzles, mazes, acrostics, and word scrambles out of a Pandora’s box, as it were. Since human nature is to make order out of chaos, the audience members eagerly act quickly to solve and figure out each challenge in what seems like split seconds. The competition is fierce yet friendly, as we remind ourselves, “we’re all in this together,” and each of us is one piece or link to connect to the whole. In one challenge, Kwong presents two visual images to create the country they spell out, such as penguin and eagle to create ‘Guinea.’ He cites the puzzle greats, such as Rubik, Margaret Farrar(crossword specialist) Lewis Carroll (known for his mastery of acrostics), Kobon Fujimara (Tokyo Puzzles); and Martin Gardner (mathemagician), with an extra special nod to crossword puzzle genius Will Shortz of the New York Times.
This show’s premise is a brilliant solution to dealing with our angst inducing conundrum of current events. Families have bonded together lately over turning to a puzzle or maze to bide time during this pandemic; teachers have even incorporated puzzles into distant learning for bonding and cooperation skills. Just as with yoga or meditation, we escape into the moment, we can’t easily think of troubles or worries when engrossed in a good puzzle. Trivial pursuits lead to the pursuit of happiness, and “Inside the Box” leads to a human hivemind, problem solving, connecting the dots, each within his/her own square box.

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“For Goodness’ Sake”…another good show @ JWT

Many a poem, song, film, and theatre production has been written and performed on the subject of finding the good,even amidst difficult situations. Yet nothing comes close to the poignant,powerful, real life, real time stories, as presented, through the modern miracle of zoom, to a captivating audience, in Jewish Women’s Theatre production of “For Goodness’ Sake.”  Each story takes a sensitive theme, one in which the writer has experienced exceptional pressure, and through a magical, moral compass,the goodness seeps through. When introducing the online theatrical salon, artistic director Ronda Spinak spoke of this virtual show, as a “groundbreaking program, told through a Jewish lens.”  The beginning song, written by Sophie Greenbaum, referenced Eve being tempted to eat the apple and learn right from wrong.  One powerful story told of a young woman at her mother’s death bed, regretting why she never asked for the recipe for her delicious soup, and now, as she lay dying, was saddened by ‘too little, too late.” Actress Lauren Aboulafia, in “Super Scar,” recounted her own personal story of the rough, terrifying childbirth of her baby son, now, healthy and thriving.  Her journey was so visceral, reaching the zoom audience with a hardly a dry eye. The story, “Holy Ground,” written by David Chiu, and performed by AJ Meijer, is the narrative of a young man, his first time at the kotel in Israel, in wonderment and awe of the people he encounters and the history surrounding him.  Each story takes on a life of its own, some piece of it certain to resonate with each viewer. That is the true magic of the vignettes presented by JWT at each and every performance I’ve ‘attended.’  “The full hearted, full throated story comes to life as the actors make it their own,” noted one astute audience member in the chat box. JWT fellow Daphna Shull stated, “it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing to have this connection with an artistic community, a family, even, especially when in quarantine. The theme of our show touches upon our society today- – trying to find goodness, truth, humanity, despite the craziness.”  Zoom productions of live theatre are definitely the pioneering trend of our time, allowing the performers to ‘go on virtual stage,   live , yet not hearing audible clapping or reactions. Yet, as one member of the cast, Jasmine Curry, said, in the q &a online, “creating that inner energy inside of us, we’re right here before you.” Actress Rosie Moss added, “we’re all in the journey together.  We may do the work separately, by ourselves, but then press the button, and see all of you!”  Presenting by zoom can be both intimate and exhausting in one, perhaps taking more concentration and effort than performing directly onstage. Yet, the Jewish Women’s Theatre puts it altogether and presents each actor and writer presenting the best of her/his/their craft.

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