Theatre Journal 50.1 (1998) 125-127
The KitchenThe Kitchen. By Arnold Wesker. The Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, Minneapolis. 14 June 1997.
Arnold Wesker, among the angriest of Britain's Angry Young Men, intended The Kitchen (1950) to depict a restaurant kitchen as a hellish synecdoche for capitalism, where cooks, pastry chefs, dishwashers, and waitresses struggle to maintain a decent level of existence. The Kitchen was the first of Wesker's plays to gain prominence in France in 1967 when Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil performed Philippe Léotard's adapted version of the play at the Cirque Medrano in Paris. Determined to make Wesker's concern for the working class universal, Mnouchkine had her actors use mime techniques without real food as a way of forcing audiences to reflect on the labor process more than the product itself. Mnouchkine's production, staged in the politically charged atmosphere of the time, was clearly intended to provoke debates about class conflict. Performances were held in factories for workers with political discussions following. The Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, a company whose performance styles and political consciousness have been influenced by the Théâtre du Soleil, has acquired a reputation for its unique ability to link European and American traditions of popular theatre, from circus and classical farce to commedia dell'arte and vaudeville. The Jeune Lune first performed The Kitchen in 1984 in the huge atrium of Minneapolis' Butler square amid restaurants and shops. This space and location provoked audiences to rethink the relationship of the theatrical event to the working conditions in their own community.
By popular demand, the Jeune Lune decided to restage The Kitchen in order to reconsider the company's past performing styles, and how they have changed and grown. Director Dominique Serrand has situated the drama in the center of the Jeune Lune's newly renovated home: a vast warehouse performance space located in downtown Minneapolis. The playing space consists of a labyrinth of walkways connecting various workers. The audience, seated on three sides of the space, watches actors come and go from their stations, which are fastidiously arranged with bowls and utensils for cooking. Two upstage entrances separate the kitchen from the imaginary dining room beyond, emphasizing the division between the working-class staff and the bourgeois patrons of the restaurant. Serrand's actors, like Mnouchkine's, use carefully mimed gestures without real food present. Two expert pastry chefs, Paul and Raymondo, roll out dough, prepare tarts, baste, and bake bread throughout the entire working day. They work side by side in a professional silence, using swift, subtle, and witty gestures which incite constant laughter from the audience. Underneath the laughter, however, their constant movement hints at the tiring and numbing routine of their work.
The most compelling part of the Jeune Lune's performance emerges in the deliberate and hilarious caricature of the daily rising and falling rhythms of a restaurant. The caricature purports to depict a day in the life of a particular restaurant in London, but also paints a more universal, frenzied image of the pressures and strains produced in any demanding labor situation. The lunch hour begins quietly, speeds up, explodes, and collapses back, and the same rhythm is repeated during the dinner hour in the second act. At the peak hours in both acts, the kitchen transforms into a mad circus of movement -- dishes and cups flying, voices blending and fighting each other. During the frenzy, the dishwasher runs along the walkways with a huge bucket, catching the flying utensils like a maestro while the audience explodes with laughter.
Where Wesker's play turns the characters' monologues into weighty speeches designed to raise political awareness of the labor situation, Serrand's production lightens the serious speeches by cutting a number of lengthy monologues, and by maintaining a breakneck pace. The characters do not seem to dwell on their problems; instead, they shout them aloud and dismiss them into the intense noise and activity of the kitchen. At one point, Kevin, the new Irish cook, is so exhausted from his first shift that he lowers himself into a...