Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Sunday in the Park with George” Shimmers

(Theater review for Fantasia and Fugue / DePaul University’s JOUR 511, Arts and Entertainment Reporting)

“White: A blank page or canvas,” begins Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” a directive that the Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s new production emphasizes with some nice digital effects: the backdrop screen gradually etched in with the familiar colors and dots of George Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” elements removed and added at character’s dictation. Lively as the show’s commitment to faithful and high-definition recreation of the legendary, Art Institute-housed painting is, however, it is the cast who color in this intimate, charming revival.

“Sunday” hinges on the success of its leads, and both delivered at Wednesday’s opening night performance. Jason Danieley as George transitions smoothly from Act I’s intense, controlled Seurat to the artist’s outwardly cocky, inwardly questioning great-grandson. But it’s Carmen Cusack’s dynamic Dot who ignites the play’s emotional spark, quickly establishing range in the opening title song as she dances from frustration to admiration and back again, selling the spectrum admirably. Danieley and Cusack demonstrate a subtle but comfortable rapport, connecting convincingly across multiple characters. At Dot’s revelation of pregnancy, a quiet moment capping off chaos, the leads silently communicate amidst the stir, Dot defiant, George finally fazed. Later, as twentieth-century George and grandmother Marie, the two play off one another with an amused tenderness. The supporting cast also does some deft comedic work, with Heidi Kettenring pulling particularly impressive double-duty in Act I as both a flirtatious German servant and spoiled American tourist.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater last tackled the show in 2002 in its theater Upstairs, a space the confines of which necessitated a radically stripped-down approach to the show’s central artwork. While the Courtyard Theater provides for a better tribute to Seurat’s work, the venue is cozy enough to again demand creativity from returning director Gary Griffin. He succeeds in making a virtue of close confines, incorporating aisles and other available space into the dramatic action, expanding the play’s world while drawing it around the audience.

Extra: Director Gary Griffin discusses “Sunday in the Park with George”

A story of the creative process, of the pursuit of two men to achieve “balance, light, and harmony,” to find inspiration in the blank page or canvas — the new “Sunday in the Park with George” succeeds in its celebration of the artist’s pursuit, but more than that injects it with life. It is not for the audience here to watch a studied recreation of a nineteenth-century masterpiece, or a twentieth century musical masterwork, but to feel the world brought before them. Good staging provides the frame; the actors bring the light.

(Through Nov. 4 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. at Navy Pier. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Tickets beginning at $48, at 312-595-6500 or http://www.chicagoshakes.com.)

Review: Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes

Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes
Giada de Laurentiis. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2005.
ISBN 1-4000-5258-0
$32.50

Review by Jacquelyn Thayer

Italian cuisine has long been a favorite of Americans, so much so that it has become convenience food. Jars of highly-processed tomato sauces line grocery store shelves, while pizza is one of the nation’s most popular fast food choices. In Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes, however, Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis shows that authentic Italian cooking celebrates freshness and flavor, without requiring great expense of money or time.

The book is arranged by course, beginning with antipasti and ending with dolci, or sweets. The recipes strike a nice balance between main dishes and sides, healthy and rich fare, and meals with meat or fish and those without. Helpfully, the book also includes a list of suggested items to stock in your pantry. A majority of the ingredients used can be found in most grocery stores, although a handful of recipes call for less common items that are more likely to be found in a specialty store. Success of many of the recipes depends upon use of fresh ingredients, but this does not have to be expensive, provided the recipes are prepared seasonally. De Laurentiis also occasionally makes use of shortcuts such as pre-washed baby spinach and store-bought (but freshly-baked) pound cake.

Each recipe is headed by technical or historical information about it and the book includes vibrant color photographs of some of the recipes and ingredients. De Laurentiis says that she believes “a great meal does not have to be difficult or complex,” and she demonstrates this with her easy-to-follow instructions. Everday Italian is a great resource for anyone interested in a fresh approach to the food of Italy.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 24, 2006

Review: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl
New York: Penguin Books, 2005
ISBN 1-59420-031-9
$15

Review by Jacquelyn Thayer

Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is a humorous and enlightening look at the job of the restaurant critic, or, more accurately, the job of the highest-profile restaurant critic in America.

Reichl was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times for nine years before accepting the position of restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1993. During an encounter with a waitress on a flight to New York, Reichl learns that the city’s finest restaurants have her picture pinned up in order to alert the staff to her illustrious presence. Fearing special treatment from the restaurants – which could produce an inaccurate review – Reichl decides to devise a series of elaborate disguises for herself. The book is a collection of anecdotes about her experiences as a critic and, in many cases, as another person.

Reichl’s stories are often both funny and thought-provoking. One illuminating moment about the restaurant world comes with her comparison of two visits to Le Cirque, one of New York’s most celebrated and expensive restaurants, one in which she dined as herself and the other in which she posed as a nondescript, Midwestern woman named Molly. While Ruth received the best treatment possible, even being seated while the King of Spain must wait for a table, Molly is seated at the bar, despite having a reservation, is refused a wine list, and is treated badly by the busboy. Reichl experiences several moments of internal conflict over this: “I felt torn between Ruth and Molly. The former was gleeful; this terrible treatment was going to make very good copy. But Molly was wondering why anyone would subject herself to this.”

Reichl also learns much about herself in this process. She becomes her late mother, Miriam, for two meals.

The first is a dinner at 21, where she takes on Miriam’s habit of causing trouble for the staff. “Soup was never hot enough, meat was always too well done, salads were overdressed or underdressed or served at the wrong temperature. She sent everything back.”

She then enjoys lunch at the Four Seasons, where she has a revelation about her own attitude towards fine meals. “My mother could be difficult, but when she was happy she was uniquely capable of abandoning herself to the moment. By becoming her I had shed the critic, abandoned the appraiser who sat at a distance, weighing each bite, measuring each dish.”

Reichl cleverly adds variety to her narrative by including in each chapter her review of the restaurant being discussed and a recipe that relates to the story in some way. Occasionally it is an adaptation of an item served at the restaurant, such as Risotto Primavera from Le Cirque, and at other times it is tied to some personal experience, such as Moules Marinières, a mussels dish that her mother “did really well.” One collection of recipes, intriguingly, is “A Frugal Repast for Betty,” one of Reichl’s more nondescript characters.

We are made privy to the inner workings of the New York Times. Reichl battles with editors, chairmen, publishers, and the critic she replaced over her ratings system – too few stars given to New York’s elite establishments – and her fondness for ethnic cuisine.

In addition to its concern with the dining world, the book traces Reichl’s life during her first years at the Times. She discusses the peculiarities of going out with her husband and young son while dressed as a redhead named Brenda – and realizing that when she was, she was “my best self, the person I always wanted to be.”

Reichl experiences professional dissatisfaction and personal tragedy over the course of the narrative, but her story comes almost full circle at its conclusion. Garlic and Sapphires provides readers with fascinating glimpses into the mindset of the critic and true food lover, while also allowing us an opportunity to meet Reichl as a person – a wife, mother, daughter, and friend.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 22, 2006

Bella, Buon Giorno!

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Buon Giorno Café
15033 Nacogdoches Rd, San Antonio Texas, 78247
(210) 967-9830

Entering Buon Giorno Café is like stepping into owner Anna Cassandro’s cozy Italian villa.

Vivaldi music resounds from a stereo perched atop a magazine-filled bookcase. Calendars of saint’s days, filled with reproductions of great works of Italian art, hang from the walls. The country knickknacks that cover the windowsills and many shelves are a rather eclectic touch, but their effect is counterbalanced by the large display case of “Italian Souvenirs” placed near the door. Three long bookshelves are crammed with books on art and history, health- and cookbooks, and, appropriately, Italian dictionaries and grammar books. The owner and one waitress greet customers when they enter. Unlike in many other coffeeshops, customers order and are served at their tables. Buon Giorno is first and foremost a cozy Italian café and, as such, is at its best when serving Italian specialties.

Buon Giorno is best-known for its Italian pastry. The tiramisu and zuppa inglese are both creamy enough to melt in one’s mouth, and the cannoli ($2.25 for one) is filled with what seems to be a delightfully simple blend of ricotta, mascarpone, a touch of sugar, and chocolate chips. The prices are even more appealing than the fare. A single slice of cake costs only $2.50, while a whole tiramisu or zuppa inglese is $20, not an unreasonable price given its high quality.

Buon Giorno is, of course, a café, and as such the quality of its coffee must also be considered. It is, fortunately, excellent. The hazelnut latte is made with a high-quality espresso so that it is rich and toasty, but not at all bitter. The prices here, too, are refreshing. A large cup of plain espresso costs only $3.25, a pleasant change from the prices found in certain coffee shop chains. Even Buon Giorno’s flavored coffees, such as Almond Joy, cost, at most, $3.75. The most expensive item here is the Caffe Breve at $5.00, perhaps because it is a latte based on half-and-half rather than milk. Other beverages, including Italian cream soda and staples such as iced tea, juice, and milk, are also available.

The rest of the menu is fairly expansive. It includes the usual café fare, such as muffins, bagels, and croissants, and does well in this category. The banana nut muffin, for one, is tender and not too sweet, and a bargain at $1.35. The menu also features soups, salads, and sandwiches. The minestrone ($1.50 for a cup, $3.00 a bowl) is another success, thick and herb-scented and featuring chunks of fresh vegetables. The salad selection is small, but includes a fruit plate in addition to garden salad and chef salad; the prices here range from $1.95 to $4.25.

Buon Giorno falters, however, when it comes to sandwiches. The menu lists several interesting choices, such as the Italian Sub, Reuben, and Chicken or Seafood Salad on Croissant, at prices hovering between $4.25 and $4.55. What it does not list is a vegetarian alternative. A cheese-and-vegetable sandwich can be made to order but it is, sadly, not quite worth the effort. The cheese is merely a thin slice of processed white cheese, and the tomato, at least on this visit, was pink and unpleasantly under-ripe.

Despite its sandwich missteps, Buon Giorno Café is a unique alternative to other coffee shops. Its homey atmosphere is in stark contrast to the more corporate feel of a place like Starbucks, and the authentic Italian fare it offers is the most welcome difference of all.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 21, 2006