Review: "The Raging Skillet" at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

Forget everything you ever thought about catered food...
Shanel Sparr and Kathryn Kates square off in the WHAT production of "The Raging Skillet" (Photo by Michael & Suz Karchmer)

Forget everything you ever thought about catered food; especially the Caterer (and the food).

This play is about a woman who, despite ALL odds, opened a successful and (definitely eclectic), catering business in New York City called The Raging Skillet.

Yes. Just like the name of this play.  Also the book it was adapted from (written as a memoir by the REAL person called, Chef Rossi.

Chef Rossi (Shanel Sparr) is the narrator, commentator and leading actor in this often hilarious (and occasionally touching) story of a Red-blooded, All American, Hippie, Rocker, Teenage rebel from a very strict Orthodox Jewish home in 1970’s New Jersey.

Oh, she was a Lesbian too. Every parent’s dream…Ha!

Especially her Mother.

That, however is not the whole, “Crux” of this story; simply a piece. Hold your horses…

This family is “Dysfunction,” from A - Z.

It’s often HILARIOUS, despite that fact.

The eccentric family includes Mom, whose awful cooking and wild notions of how to keep Kosher for Passover is off the wall!

Then there’s Dad ( only spoken of), who schlepps the Religiously devout family of five into the Deep South woods of Georgia for three to four months a year in a one room trailer hitch (with, of course, a microwave).

 

Rossi tells us how hard it is to eat Kosher on a trip like that. Her comments on what they DID eat are hilarious.

 

This play is very much about FOOD, but also the people who make it and eat it. 

It's also very much about the angst of youth trying to find and define itself in this life, which, as Chef Rossi explains, is not an easy task when you’re Orthodox Jewish, a Lesbian and a Woman!

Chef Rossi stumbled on the key to her future career at age thirteen, when, after the whole family just couldn’t stand Mom’s burnt offerings anymore, she put some mozzarella cheese and oregano on a bagel and micro-waved it.

Voila! Rossi’s “Pizza Bagels.” were born.

She explains about how she found it hard to fit into a profession (as a Chef of course) largely dominated by men.

How she felt and what she did about being a Woman in a, “Man‘s” world. Many women (and some men) can relate to that.

 

It’s one of the things that makes Rossi’s character REAL!

 

From her low times to her high times, she opens up and shares intimate things; some sad, some ironic and some REALLY funny!

The stage, is handsomely designed as a large, working kitchen, where all the action occurs (later on you may actually smell bacon cooking on a real griddle. Wait. Bacon? Is that Kosher?…

(Hats off to Richard Wadsworth Chambers for his stage design).

The action begins as Chef Rossi (Shanel Sparr), appears, dressed in her chef’s coat and announces, “Welcome to my true life story.”

“I’m here to talk about myself, and I won‘t leave until I‘m satisfied!”

Jumping quickly to her recipes of her OWN unique style of catering she tells us, “I re-wrote the book!” 

 

(Note:  Chef Rossi has definitely taken Catered Cuisine to a different level in her career.  The opening night Audience was treated to her chocolate covered bacon, her,  Snickers and potato chip casserole (made with butter and marshmallow) among other goodies).

Her love of breaking the rules of gastronomy includes calling herself an. "Anti-Chef."

 

As she is explaining her Hungarian/Yiddish roots to us, her old Mom wanders out on stage (long story, since she passed) and says she just came to wish her daughter luck),  but almost immediately OUT comes some good old Jewish Guilt.

Mom asks, “Maybe you’d be happier if I threw myself off the stage?”

Things really heat up as the mother/daughter dynamic takes over; both monologue (Rossi breaking the fourth wall) and conversation between the two.

Rossi talks about Mom’s bad food.

Mom complains her daughter's name, "Rossi" sounds Italian (the family name is Ross, but from a young age friends began to call her Rossi).

 

Rossi says Mom burned everything. Mom defends herself,

“I burned things because I care.”

On and on they go. Complaints and Guilt!

“Guilt, Guilt, Guilt,” screams Rossi at her mom.

It’s actually wonderful!

Jacques LaMarre’s flowing monologues and dialogues are dig in! 

He catches the quirky essence of the grown up character of Rossi, duking it out with her departed mother in this funny, yet deep play.

This is helped along by the  interesting staging by Sasha Bratt (in his Directorial debut at WHAT).

A lot of jabs and left hooks language later, we come to a definite dark side to Rossi’s earlier life as she relates the bumpy side of her journey to today.

Yes. There were indeed problems with Rossi being Gay; and underage ...and often, "Wild!" 

 

All funny stories aside, we come to see her  parents were very strict and could not ...and would not ...accept her sexuality or lifestyle.

She candidly admits to us that these were her “Rebellious Years,” (smoking pot, staying out late hanging with the Punks (the usual as far as I can see).

She explains how she was dealt some strong medicine for being, in her own words, a “Feral Teenager.”

 

Mom and Dad, however, were determined to get her “Fixed.“

The process was rather extreme, but let's suffice to say that she was immediately cut off from ALL friends and family.

In essence: She lost custody of herself!

What she did about it, and how she went about getting out and finding life on her own through the next crucial developing years, is something Rossi will have to fill you in on from the stage.

 

Meanwhile, she kept creating her recipes.  She bartended, she cooked, she peeled, she sliced and diced and worked her "Tuchus" off to make something of herself. Some of her ODD jobs are best left to her to explain.

 

This play, at times, is just so funny, that much laughing out loud happens.

This is, of course, tempered by some serious situations for our Hero (but we're always rooting for Chef Rossi).

 

In the end, we see her trying to come to grips with her Mother, we’re confronted (both with tears and laughter).  It's not an uncommon situation with children and parents as they reach a certain age.

 

There is much more to this play and it’s final message, but I think you should see it to get all the characters, situations, comedy lines, sadness, anger and reality (sometimes bad, sometimes good) that can emerge out of a single human life from a single human (are we sure) family.

 

I think the majority of us come from some form of, "Dysfunction", the rest are a just a bland minority. That's a comment from this Reviewer.

 

As I reflect on the play one more time, I’m smiling as I think of Chef Rossi’s Mom talking about going to Wendy’s (her favorite restaurant) and reminding her daughter to “Remember to always complain.”

 

This odd play started life as a book (Rossi's Memoir), is now a play and it would not surprise me to see it as a musical in its next incarnation. I can already picture the Chocolate Bacon dancing...  

 

I enjoyed this play, but, it does need some work to iron out some dead spots that keeps it from stalling here and there.  The beginning could use a little tightening as well, but, as this play continues to evolve, I think it has more of an audience who will enjoy it more and more. 

 

A Note about the Cast:

Kathryn Kates (Mom) was perfect in her role as the quintessential, “Jewish Mother.” She can be as frail one minute and as tough as Cagney the next. She’s is a consummate actress.

She’s had an illustrious and long career in theatre as well as Film and Television.

She’s had two memorable parts on Seinfeld (“The Marble Rye” and “The Babka“). She can also be seen on Netflix playing Fred Savage’s mother on, “Friends from College.”

She’s played a Judge on Law and Order: SVU as well as many theatrical productions.

 

Shanel Sparr (Chef Rossi) shows great energy in the demanding role of Chef Rossi (as most of it is monologue, leaving her onstage for the entire play). As Rossi, she shows various moods as she guides us through the past and present.

This is her debut at the WHAT and after this she is headed to New York to appear in a new play about J.M. Barrie called, Shadowplay.

 

Michael Patrick Trimm, (DJ Skillet) is the voice of the DJ, the Announcer and the Chef Rossi’s younger brother. He also can cook onstage if needed). He too is working at WHAT for the first tie and comes to us from a background of New York’s prestigious, Public Theater where he played their production of "Julius Caesar." He also appeared at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre as well as on many Regional stages.


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