Staring at Rick Bayless chopping greens — and, let's face it, most of the ticket buyers at “Cascabel” are paying the big bucks to stare at the famous Chicago chef en personne and eat his delicious Mexican-inspired vittles — it suddenly struck me how easily and willingly he fades into the background.
For a guy with so many simultaneous enterprises as Bayless, that might seem counterintuitive. For example, during the same week as the start of the reprise engagement of Bayless' theatrical collaboration with the Lookingglass Theatre Co., which is now downtown at the Goodman Theatre, the genial chef was also preparing to open a new restaurant, Xoco Wicker Park. But for all that success, Bayless seems genuinely happy, and thus also genuinely credible, in the role of an anonymous cook, focusing on slicing and dicing vegetables, intent on the perfect mole, blinking behind his glasses in the rude glare of the stage lights.
That is, in many ways, the precise opposite of what happens to most chefs when they jump on the stage. Because the phenomenon of chef as public performer, let alone the chef as major celebrity, is relatively new, most chefs feel the need to gird their iron loins and amp up their own theatricality. Bayless, though, has no truck with flashy mixed metaphors; rather, he almost disappears inside himself.
And that palpable humility, along with the mole, is one of the major weapons of “Cascabel.” You feel like you are watching a culinary artist exploring his roots. It's fictional but also weirdly sans artifice.
If you were at the first run of this show in 2012, and maybe also if your budget confined you to reading reports thereof, you'll likely want to know if it is different and/or better this time around. The answer is yes, slightly. In both categories. During the first circus-encrusted “Cascabel,” when dinner theater (and I know the historical associations of that term are problematic and declasse, but it is a fair description) was new to Lookingglass, there was certain tension surrounding logistics, even though that first effort was remarkably smooth, considering. It's yet smoother now, even though more patrons are being served.
Another notable change is the inclusion of your beverages in the ticket price. That might seem of dubious artistic relevance, but the removal of the need to reach for your wallet at the end of the show (and look back over how many glasses of wine you did or did not drink, “family-style”) genuinely increases your feeling of well-being (and decreases your financial anxiety), which is both artistic and relevant. Indeed, it creates an entirely different milieu for the crucial climax. This is why casinos use chips. No one at such an event wants to be reminded of what they are spending. It spoils the afterglow.
Another useful improvement is the height of the ceiling of the Goodman's Owen Theatre versus the Lookingglass space. To some extent circus acts are like basketball players. Training and talent count for plenty, but if you wanna soar, you have to have height.
“Cascabel” (which is now officially billed as “Cascabel: Dinner — Daring — Desire”) has a loose plot. Bayless plays an anonymous cook, a cook with a past, who arrives at the titular boardinghouse, somewhere in Mexico, with the hopes of cooking his way into the heart of the reclusive owner (Chiara Mangiameli), a Senora who dances nicely but seems impervious to a good mole. Cook must dislodge a rival suitor (Thomas J. Cox), a poor sap who can't cook his way out of a paper bag. And, at the same time, Cook's culinary alchemy in the kitchen excites the various staffers of the boardinghouse, who find themselves, ahem, energized.
Those manifestations of sensual awakening are, in this show, circus acts. These acts mostly are different from the first time around, including a Bathing Chica (Genevieve Drolet), whom you might aptly describe as a contortionist in a bathtub, and a couple of Solitary Travelers (played by the fabulously emotional Heloise Bourgeois and William Underwood) whose sexy he-she acrobatic routine on a pole stuck in the middle of one of the diners' tables might well make you hope to never travel solo again. Comedy — a bit better this time but never the main entree in this show — comes from Lauren Katz and Daniel Passer (nominally gardeners and both quite funny) while the proceedings are controlled by the enthusiastic Maitre d', J. Salome Martinez.
I think Bayless and his collaborators (Heidi Stillman and Tony Hernandez, who also walks the high wire in the show with casual pizazz) could go yet further with the Bayless persona, still a tad underwritten. The show has still to figure out how to really foreground his work; the sweet spot would be to do so without spoiling the charm of the aforementioned humility. Martinez directs the audience in some communal tasting and smelling; these sections work very well. There could yet be more; one senses a lust for them in the house.
In Las Vegas or New York, “Cascabel” would have much competition. But in Chicago it remains quite the unique event. Despite the high-end food and concept, it avoids being pretentious and, unlike some similar shows in other cities, offers plenty of time for you to converse with your date. That's nice. The circus acts are high quality and the show polished without feeling freeze-dried in any way.
I saw “Cascabel” the same weekend as a new dramatic adaptation of Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle,” a deeply disturbing expose of the soulless Chicago stockyards a couple of generations ago.
The kinder, gentler, smarter Bayless is a further reminder of just how far food and culture in Chicago have come.
When: Through Aug. 31
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.
Tickets: $215-375 at 312-337-0665312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun