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Paulanne Simmons

"Cooking for Kings" Gives a Taste of History

"Cooking for Kings"
Directed by Simon Green
Presented by The Ideas Foundry
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
Opened May 10, 2006
Wed. & sat 8:15, Sun. 3:15
$35 (212) 279-4200 or www.Ticketcentral.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 14, 2006

From early childhood most people learn to equate food with love. But few take the metaphor to the same extremes as legendary French chef Antonin Careme, whose life story is told in Ian Kelly's one-man-show "Cooking for Kings." If Careme was obsessed with food, then Kelly, who wrote the biography he based the play on, is obsessed with Careme.

Kelly, who studied History at Oxford University, fills the play with tantalizing details and garnishes them with ironic wit and clever wordplay (he describes the "great weight of British nobility, grabbing the sea-cure in the morning, a sinecure in the evening").

As a performer, Kelly has boundless energy and tremendous powers of concentration. But it is Simon Green's direction that makes a technically difficult play look deceptively easy.

"Cooking for Kings" takes place in the present (in this case, post-Napoleonic Europe): Careme is preparing a feast for England's Prince Regent and his guests in celebration of the anticipated birth of an heir to the Prince of Wales. It also takes place in the past: Careme talks about his parents' abandoning him during the French Revolution; his early career and growing fame; his marriage to Catherine; his daughter, Marie; and his escape to St. Petersburg after the defeat of Napoleon "the runt." And it takes place in the future (from Careme's point of view): Kelly also plays tour guides conducting tourists through the places where Careme plied his trade.

While Careme, who is actually cooking, grabs bowls, pots and utensils from an overhead rack and chops, stirs and heats, he describes his activities with the zest of Julia Child. And Careme is accomplished at multitasking. He is never at a loss for words. He never loses his trend of thought.

Like a walking tabloid, Careme comments on Josephine's bad teeth, makes fun of the crippled Talleyrand and recites the roster of guests at the Rothschilds' table: Rossini, Paganini, Balzac, Heine and Hugo.

He is often quite eloquent: "The great kitchen is my field of battle," he says at one point. Or, "It's so important to lie in one's memoirs [Careme wrote one himself]. It keeps biographers in business," he announces slyly.

Careme believes "love is like a hunger," and for him it was a hunger that was never satisfied. His wife, after years of neglect, took his child and left him in St. Petersburg. His daughter refused to eat the food he lovingly made for her.

If Careme's story is fascinating because of the famous people he knew, the tumultuous times he lived in and the many innovations he made in the art of cooking (from the dishes he made to the hat he wore), it is powerful on a more personal level. Kelly portrays the great chef as vain and sarcastic but also vulnerable and ultimately somewhat tragic.

Through it all, Kelly's performance is as tart as a lemon, as sweet as chocolate, as savory as a thick stew. And finally, it is as satisfying as a banquet.

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