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The Art of French Cooking is a Celebration Spectacle of the Absurd, Surreal and Female Empowerment

By Ezekiel McAdams

May 4 2024

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*In full disclosure, I’m a straight, white male that has neither the experience nor understanding as much as I would like to. I can try to learn, be educated and be an ally but I can’t speak with confidence or faux understanding to an experience that has or never will be mine. I feel vastly under qualified writing this, and my hope is to see a female, queer or non-binary perspective in this space that can be written with the nuance I cannot.* - Author’s Note     

  The Art of French of Cooking is 25th St Theatre’s latest offering, after the company has delved back into original productions starting with Fruitcake in 2019.

  The production runs from May second to the twelfth of 2024. It plays at the Emrys Jones Theatre which is located at the John Mitchell building also the home of the Drama Department at The University of Saskatchewan.

  Written by playwright, Madeline Blais-Dahlem and directed by Anita Smith. The production stars Sarah Bergbusch, Tim Bratton, Marley Duckett, Bobbi Lee Jones, Elizabeth Nepjuk and Danova Dickson as Boobel Understudy for the dates of May Ninth to Eleventh.  


  This extraordinary piece of theatre is Alice in Wonderland with steroids, estrogen, adult content and confidently oozing with female empowerment and sexuality that knows how to have fun without forgetting the points it makes.


  The premise follows Blanch (Nepjuk) after losing both a professional and romantic partnership goes on a journey of self discovery to discover what she lost in pursuit of gains, There is also the side plot of Boobel (Bergbusch and Dickson) and Boobar (Bobbi Lee Jones) whom are Blanche’s silicone breast implants that gain sentience and go through their own emotional upbringing of defiance, puberty and utter jubilation of new found freedom.

  Bratton and Duckett play multiple characters in which can only be described as a series of vignettes that thread the two parallel storylines with relentless symmetry, you really have to see it for yourself


  Known for being the stewards of the annual Saskatoon Fringe Festival, the company returned to its original mandate after support from the Robert Steane Legacy Gift. Steane, a philanthropist donated in excess ten million dollars to support the arts after his death in 2019. Additional funding for this production came from Canada Council of the Arts as well as a grant through Creative Arts.


  While mostly known for her work in Canadian French theatre, this is Blais-Dahlem’s first English language work. She has been working on this idea for twenty five years, submitting to numerous festivals and getting rejected until someone took a chance.


  This chance created a unicorn of theatre, everything that comes from diverse styles of theatre. This is experimental, feminist, surreal, absurd and fantastic. It unapologetically shines a light on female sexuality, social constructs on women’s bodies and an experience some might not understand but can’t be forgotten.   


  It would be so easy to use numerous cooking puns but simply put, this production is stunning in balancing absurdity, surrealism, body positivity, female sexuality, social constructs and female empowerment that makes it look easy.


  Nepjuk is wildly vulnerable, relatable and heartfelt in her portrayal as Blanche. Her versatility as a performer is obvious as comedy, drama, curiosity and raw sexual confidence is just as layered and grounded providing the anchor overlooking the surreal absurd fantasy the audience has been thrust into.


  Bergbush is absolutely delightful as Boobel, who is Blanche’s right boob. She steals every scene with the whimsy, naiveté and unadulterated charm that is only comparable to someone finding themselves on spring break, embracing each misadventure with gusto.

  Bobbi Lee Jones is the perfect counterpart of the duo, as Boobar, Blanche’s smaller boob. Jones allows the empathy to shine as her hope for reintegration into part of a body that is all she has ever known. Jones conveys compassion intertwined with longing and sadness for dreams unfilled while never losing the comic joy and manic joy that is on full display.


In full disclosure and fairness I can only speak to Bergsusch’s portrayal of Boobel, Blanche’s right boob as the performance I reviewed was opening, last night on May Fourth 2024. *This will be updated if I can get a chance to see one of the following performance dates* - Author’s Note          


  Bratton proves the definition of a chameleon in his performance as four characters, Richard, Bull, Gustave and Dr. Heinrech. Bratton has to juggle accents, affectations and physical mannerisms while utilizing stereotypes but making each character definable in the lens of absurdity that defies veering into full camp. Standouts are Gustave as the French Chef and Bull whose Southern accent and delivery is just as mesmerizing as his giant hat.


Duckett is marvelous as each of her characters ranging from a Las Vegas showgirl chicken to the voluptuous Cloris are so perfectly positioned in the production that you will leave wanting more but not disappointed.


  Smith’s direction is a master class and worthy of a being nominated. To use an analogy, if you think of this as an orchestra, Smith as the conductor made what could have been impossible in lesser hands not only a reality but a well tuned machine that she created with the cast, crew and the genre defying script.

  Her ability to make each actor mesmerizing through an absurd, surreal fantasy landscape has now set the template for future productions.

  The set and projection screen design by Cameron Fraser is majestic as it allows you to be transported to a magical live theatre experience.


  The lighting design by Katie Blackburn-Dust is as immersive as the set, acting, choreography and audio design. Blackburn-Durst uses the lighting changes to segue into each pitstop.

  Morgan Carter who created the prop design is just as part of the magic presented because each prop is essential to the unison on stage and would be easy to forget the contribution with everything coming at you like a runaway train.


Credit is deservedly due for Elizabeth Foucault as Dialect coach, as mentioned above, the dialects and affections of the multiple characters portrayed by Bratton and Duckett could have been silly but Foucault is able to help craft absurd, surreal caricatures that the actors were able to feel as real as one can in the throes of the absurd.


Lauren Griffin has no easy task keeping this rollercoaster of wonder on track, from the actors, moving sets and projection screens. It would be easy to think she has been wrangling this production like it’s been on tour and Saskatoon is just another stop.


Emma Gustafson and Beverly Kobelsky share the costume creation that just helps add the extra textures and layers to this avant-garde ascetic. The creative design choices stemming from female body parts, French Chefs, to a Las Vegas chicken showgirl and southern bull fighter, are just another piece that makes this production sparkle very brightly.


Sam Kruger who just finished a run as performer and co-creator of Live Five’s Bat Brains allowed the audio and music choices to become a character in of itself. Kruger has a talent choosing song and music choices just based on the last two productions he was involved in.


  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the choreography by Tatum Wildeman, the care and precision in crafting each character’s unique style added so much to the ambience that it could easily be overlooked when everything is shiny so brightly.          


  The feat of this particular presentation is the onslaught of genres, themes, puns, sexual innuendo and both female empowerment and sexuality presented with such confidence behind the backdrop of a fantastical world, its indescribable.


  While art is subjective, this play and production is a new genre that needs a portmanteau to encapsulate of its contents. It also is uniquely visual, mixing physical movement and comedy in a kaleidoscope that only asks the audience to have fun, enjoy the ride and maybe not to forget about the subtext, messaging themes that are just as important.

  Every member of this production, starting with Blais-Dahlem’s wonderful, evocative, ambitious script to the director, the cast and each member of the crew should all be recognized for bringing a work of art to life and creating the unimaginable.


  At the risk of speaking too soon, this has the potential of being ingrained in the pantheon of great theatre works that maybe could also be studied decades later with the same importance that we’ve given male playwrights.


The Art of French Cooking is playing from May 2-12 2024 at the Emrys Jones Theatre located in the John Mitchell Building at The University of Saskatchewan. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office at 25th Street. Theatre.

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