There's something tasty happening on the stages of Tampa Bay theater venues.
At FreeFall Theatre's recently ended production of An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, a despondent diner begged restaurant staff to let him starve to death while delectable aromas wafted from the kitchen. (Theatergoers at the St. Petersburg theater could actually smell — but not see — what was cooking behind the swing doors.)
On Friday, a sold-out audience at the TECO theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa watched soprano Stella Zambalis make a flourless cake on stage, trilling away as Julia Child in the one-act operatic monologue Bon Appétit — Have Your Chocolate Cake and Eat It, Too! Theatergoers noshed samples as they left the theater. Definitely tasty, compliments to the real chef, Nicole Abbriano of Maestro's at the Straz.
And next month, Sam Shepard's When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) opens at American Stage Theater in St. Petersburg. The play centers around an old chef and the young reporter who comes to interview him on death row. Something dreadful has happened in the chef's life and he is unable to cook anymore, still, food remains his salvation.
Why all this theatrical food?
Arts holds up a mirror to life, says Todd Olson, artistic director at American Stage, and right now, it's reflecting our national obsession with food. If we aren't eating lots of it, we are worrying about what's in it and where it comes from, and always what it will do to our waistlines.
We are a restaurant culture, he says, and we certainly like to watch other people cook. The South Beach Wine & Food Festival last weekend drew thousands to South Florida to observe Food Network stars and other culinary glitterati flip burgers and mix cocktails. We love the sport of it, Olson says, with more and more culinary competition shows finding their way to TV.
So it makes sense that food has become a stage star, too.
While the old chef contemplates his crime and the last morsels he will put in his mouth in When the World was Green, the despondent diner Victor in Cafe du Grand Boeuf finally eats, though his taste of creme brulee is bittersweet. In both Green and Cafe du Grand Boeuf, food is a metaphor and backdrop for something deeper.
In Bon Appétit there is no reflection, no hidden meaning, just unbridled joy of cooking and plenty of laughs in the brief 30-minute operatic treatment of a cooking lesson for Gateau au Chocolat Eminence Brune. You can imagine Zambalis' rich and soaring voice when she sings the name of the cake. Or the depths it hit when she recounts what might happen if the cake flops and falls.
To make a chocolate cake, one must have a "battle plan," she extols. Zambalis, who grew up in Clearwater, appeared earlier this year in St. Petersburg Opera's Tosca, a story of tragic loss, though not the kind experienced when a culinary effort goes bad.
Composer Lee Hoiby wrote the music with the text being a mashup of two episodes of Child's classic PBS series, The French Chef. Regular viewers might remember the episode in which Child races with the electric mixer to see which can whip egg whites to stiff peaks quicker, played to delightful effect by Zambalis in Bon Appétit. The one-act monologue was written in 1989 for Jean Stapleton and is being presented as part of the Florida Opera Festival and directed by Frank McClain. Because the show sold out so quickly, a second performance was added on March 16.
For anyone who watched the 1960s show — then or in reruns — the set is cozy and familiar with yellow wall stoves and a seemingly ancient, pre-KitchenAid behemoth mixer on the counter. Pots and bowls are throwbacks, too.
Zambalis as Child in royal blue button-down shirt and green cotton apron with a hand towel tucked at the waist is in complete command of the stage, and the audience will have trouble separating scripted mishaps from the real deal. (For those who might wonder about the cream of tartar of which Zambalis sings, it's a powdery byproduct of winemaking that helps preserve the volume of whipped egg whites. Find it in the spice aisle.)
Zambalis has a blast cracking and separating eggs, double-dip tasting and whipping those eggs whites with a frenzy and then attempting to release the baked cakes from their pans, all the while singing her instructions. She has a Julia Child moment when things don't go exactly as planned, but it turns out fine in the end, even as luscious chocolate glaze drips on the floor. It looked good enough to invoke the 5-second rule but the audience is not invited onstage to partake.
Instead, samples of cake are offered as the audience leaves the show and Zambalis waits in the lobby, shaking hands and accepting hugs. Yes, she says, she likes to cook in real life so her acumen with the whisk and copper bowl wasn't pure acting.
Art was imitating life, just as Olson suggested.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.