Thursday, October 5, 2017

"How to Use a Knife" at Mixed Blood Theatre

About their newest production, Mixed Blood's Artistic Director Jack Reuler notes, "How to Use a Knife is definitive Mixed Blood: hilarious until it's not, propelled by catalytic cultural collisions, simultaneously political and theatrical, timely in America and in our own Cedar Riverside neighborhood, multi-lingual, and 90 intermissionless minutes." If you think this sounds like a recipe for a delectable and satisfying theater meal, you are absolutely correct. Will Snider's new play is a tragicomedy that takes place in a restaurant kitchen with diverse, clearly drawn, realistic characters, brilliantly brought to life by a fantastic cast, with a completely engrossing story that'll leave you wondering just who the bad guy is in this story, and maybe realizing that defining a "bad guy" isn't all that simple.

All I know about restaurant kitchens is what I've learned from watching Top Chef, which is that it's a high pressure, fast-moving, rough-talking, exciting environment. How to Use a Knife confirms that impression. At a steak and burger joint in Manhattan, the jerky owner Michael (Michael Booth at his jerky-est) brings in an old pal George (Zach Myers, both terrifying and sympathetic) to be the new head chef. We get the sense that George is coming back from some sort of downfall, and Mike is doing him a favor by hiring him. George shows the current employees who's boss, including Spanish speaking cooks Miguel (Jake Caceres, providing much of the fun and humor) and Carlos (a sly Raúl Ramos), African dishwasher Steve (a sweet-tempered but steel-cored Ansa Akyea), and young busboy Jack (Maxwell Collyard, who has some experience in that role). There's a lot of yelling, swearing, and bullying as George gets the kitchen in order, but Steve stands apart from the chaos. He doesn't yell and in fact rarely speaks, doesn't drink, and never gets angry. George and Steve soon strike up a friendship as they teach each other cooking and sober thinking, respectively. It soon comes out that Steve has a secret from his past too, specifically his involvement in the Rwandan Civil War and its aftermath. When an INS agent (a stern Taous Khazem) comes to the kitchen looking for a war criminal, George must make a decision and reconcile the horrific accusations with the kind and gentle man he knows.

A few thoughts:
  • This production is directed by Jesca Prudencio, who directed the first production of this play that received a rolling world premiere last year, and her familiarity with the piece is obvious. 
  • I can't say enough good things about this cast. They're all so perfect for their roles and completely immersed in the character, with sparkling chemistry among the group. 
  • Miguel only speaks Spanish although he seems to understand English (like Abuela on Jane the Virgin). The Spanish is never translated for the audience, so if you understand Spanish you might get an extra laugh or too, but even if you don't, it's clear what the general intention of the dialogue is. 
  • Scenes are separated by loud and appropriate music (sound designer Phillip O'Toole said in a video on Mixed Blood's website that he wanted to create a character for the sound, and he definitely did that). 
  • The kitchen is so realistically depicted on stage, with real and/or real-looking food actually being prepared (or a believable facsimile), that I almost wanted to place an order (except that this doesn't seem like the kind of place that has veggie burgers). This is one of those shows where the prop choreography has to be spot on (including some chaos at the end), and it is, so kudos to everyone involved in that.
  • This is a play that doesn't spell everything out for you at the beginning, and experiencing the slow reveal of the layers upon layers of character and plot is what makes it so delicious.
The hilarious, sobering, completely engrossing How to Use a Knife continues through October 15. Reserve a seat for $25 online, or take advantage of their "Radical Hospitality" program in which all seats (if available) are free two hours prior to the show.

George (Zach Myers) teaches Steve (Ansa Akyea) how to use a knife
(photo by Rich Ryan)

busboy Jack (Maxwell Collyard) learns to expedite with cooks
Miguel (Jake Caceres) and Carlos (Raúl Rammos)
(photo by Rich Ryan)