Thursday, September 12, 2013

Play About Julia Child is Tastefully Seasoned, but Never Quite Sizzles -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

To Master the Art
a play by William Brown & Doug Free
A TimeLine Theatre Production
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru October 20

With my last post being a 2500+ word essay imparting the importance of learning about people & topics that may extend beyond one's natural tendencies or predate one's own existence, I must sheepishly admit to entering To Master the Art with rather scarce knowledge about its subject, Julia Child.

Sure I'd known her name and general claim to fame as far back as I can remember--and her distinctive, high-pitch voice, which made me assume she was British--but I don't recall ever specifically watching any of her TV shows, reading her cookbooks or exploring her biography, nor have I seen the 2009 movie, Julie & Julia.

But before I arrived at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place on Tuesday night--where I was greeted by a pair of chefs from Le Cordon Bleu Chicago sizzling up some savory Crepes Suzanne--I looked Child up on Wikipedia and viewed one of her cooking demonstrations on YouTube.

Though barely much of a foray into familiarity with a woman who lived nearly 92 years and was famous for over 40, this brief research essentially made everything that I saw onstage in To Master the Art feel redundant.

For though it is plenty long enough at nearly 2-1/2 hours and features an outstanding performance by Karen Janes Woditsch as Child--which may well be worth the price of admission in itself--the play is essentially a biologue (biography + travelogue) that touches on a number of touchstones without delving deep into any of them.

These include Child's early life as an American spy (before the action in the play begins), her time in France and her inspiration for learning French cooking, her husband Paul's job as a diplomat charged with promoting American culture in France, Julia's strained relationship with her father, her & Paul's friendship with a woman who winds up victimized by McCarthyism, the issue of American Communism in itself, Julia writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a couple friends, the strugle to get it published and finally, though only referenced slightly, her TV fame.

Any one of these topics could likely have made for a fine play in itself. But with each only dabbled on, I never got a deep glimpse into any part of Julia Child's life, and stuggled with comprehending certain aspects before the next topic got broached.

Thanks to Woditsch and a terrific cast throughout--including Craig Spidle as Paul, TimeLine Theatre stalwart Terry Hamilton in dual roles and Heidi Kettenring, a great local musical theater star who here shows her deftness for drama as Jane, the Childs' leftist friend--To Master the Art certainly makes for an enjoyable night of theater; it's just not a brilliant piece of it.

Great writers and directors can likely make anything work--and Willam Brown and Doug Frew's piece was definitely crowd-pleasing--but biographical plays trying to cover a subject's full life, or a wide expanse of it, often wind up like this, i.e. somewhat sketchy due to the time constraints.

As this production is part of my Broadway in Chicago series, staged in collaboration with TimeLine Theatre, the great local troupe that debuted the play in 2010, I can't help recall TimeLine's much better rendition of a biographical play about Beethoven, called 33 Variations.

That drama, by Moises Kauffman, focused only a relatively small aspect of Beethoven's life--while weaving in a modern day narrative about a mother and her daughter--and as I wrote in my review, I tend to find that bio-dramas work best when the are more explicitly about someone in the micro, not the macro.

In sum, To Master the Art is worth savoring because Julia Child merits knowing about, and because
Woditsch and her colleagues are terrific. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it, and having loved what TimeLine has done over the years, I'm thrilled they're getting a more prominent showcase--and already an extension.

But in terms of providing any greater depth or insight to Child, beyond what you can learn by quickly perusing Wikipedia and watching her on YouTube, this tasteful play doesn't quite master the art of drama. Or, one might say, it could use a good bit more flavor. 

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