Arts

Theatre Notes

Chef’s big score

The Last Supper of Antonin Carême • Catalyst Theatre (8529
Gateway Blvd) • To Apr 18 • preVUE “We have a workshop in
Calgary in the old Hudson Bay building with great big timber beams,”
says Steve Pearce of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, “and there’s
a kitchen in there where we all tend to eat our meals together. But I’m
afraid they tend to be greasy Bavarian stews—nothing terribly
elaborate.”

The subject of the Trouts’ latest puppet production, The Last Supper
of Antonin Carême, would be appalled. Born in Paris in 1783,
Carême rose from the depths of poverty—his father abandoned the
10-year-old Carême in the streets—to become the most celebrated
chef in France. He introduced Russian dishes like borscht and coulibiac into
European cuisine, invented the vol-au-vent, designed a variety of kitchen
utensils and cooking vessels and even created the tall white hat that chefs
wear to this day. His sense of showmanship was unparalleled; Carême
believed in elaborate centrepieces and took a particular delight in crafting
detailed (if inedible) historical tableaux out of nothing but almond paste
and confectioner’s sugar. He was called the king of cooks and the cook
of kings, managing the kitchens of Talleyrand for 12 years, and also serving
the future King George IV of England, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and the
Baron de Rothschild before his death at the age of 50, “burnt
out,” as one historian wrote, “by the flame of his genius and the
charcoal of the roasting spit.”

I glean all this information from the pages of the Larousse Gastronomique,
the same mammoth culinary encyclopedia in which Pearce and the Trouts first
encountered Carême’s story. “We’d been developing a
play about a chef and his apprentice,” Pearce says, “where the
chef would have a sense of taste but the apprentice would
not—he’d learn everything by rote. We liked the idea of someone
who cooked without the joy of eating, and Antonin’s story seemed to
mesh well with that idea: he was well-known for writing cookbooks that
demanded meticulous measurements of all the ingredients, and he was a big
stickler for how dishes were named. He was all about the quantification of
food and recipes and not so much the qualitative sense of taste. In fact,
Carême went so far as to say he didn’t consider confectionery to
be a wing of cuisine at all; he considered it a wing of
architecture.”

Carême’s fanatical pursuit of ever more spectacular dishes to
serve his aristocratic clients also struck the Trouts as an interesting way
of dramatizing their ideas about the quest for the sublime. “What is
the sublime?” Pearce asks. “Food is interesting because on the
one hand, it’s sustenance; it’s something that we can shove in
our cakehole in order to be able to live. But on the other hand, it’s
also something that can taste quite marvelous and indescribable. It can be a
joyous revelation that sets the bells of creation ringing, or it can be
something that just keeps you from keeling over or getting a headache…. And
I guess the question we’re asking is whether a loaf of bread can be
more sublime than a grand, architectural cake, or whether it’s simply a
matter of attitude toward both of them.”

It’s easy to dismiss Carême’s creations as one more
manifestation of the perversity of French high culture—the same
decadent fondness for incredibly expensive, infuriatingly impractical
displays of specialized artistry that keeps so many haute couture designers
in business today. But Pearce takes a broader view of the matter. “I
don’t know,” he says. “I think each culture develops its
own hifalutin useless things. I mean, why would anyone drive an incredibly
inconvenient vehicle like a Hummer if not to tell the world their status? The
French do the same thing—they just do it with food and fancy
clothes.”

Songs from a marriage

The Adventures of Wanda and Jack • Varscona Theatre • To Apr 11
• reVUE In The Adventures of Wanda and Jack, Michele Brown and Paul
Morgan Donald play struggling country music duo Wanda Wilcox and Jack
Stanton, who got married on Friday the 13th. It’s a little mysterious
as to why an astrology buff like Wanda would ever have agreed to that date,
but I suspect it’s because it enables her to blame their lack of
success on some abstract concept of “unluckiness” instead of
their own character flaws. Wanda remains hopeful that each of their poorly
paid small-town gigs could be the one that vaults them into the big time, but
it’s all too obvious that they spend a lot more time bickering and
sniping at each other than they do rehearsing and writing songs. Their
arguments, in fact, are their best collaborations.

Brown and Donald’s play alternates between Wanda and Jack’s
stage act and slice-of-life scenes showing the couple backstage, on the road
or hanging out in their trailer. There’s no plot, just a gradual
accumulation of character—the setting is completely different, but in a
weird way, the play’s quiet, observational tone reminds me of Evan S.
Connell’s twin novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge.

The play is full of details—such as Wanda’s fascination with
’70s singer Bobbie Gentry or Jack’s habit of buying Wanda flowers
and then unromantically tossing them at her—that are strange but
totally convincing, and Brown and Donald have written some winning songs,
particularly the title number and the poignant “Looking for
Alibis.” Even so, this 60-minute show feels slight and ultimately
unsatisfying—it’s got a lot of sharp observations but no
epiphanies. We’re told that the song “The Adventures of Wanda and
Jack” never ends, that actually it has hundreds of verses and that
Wanda writes a new one every day. I think the play The Adventures of Wanda
and Jack has a great melody, but I’d suggest that Brown and Donald
still need to write a final verse. V

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