Gunther Grass's The Wicked Cooks (the last chance to see it is March 10-11 at Humboldt State's Gist Theater) is metaphorical madness. It begins with an unforgettable set. You never quite get past that, even after you have left the theater.
In combination with subtle lighting, the intention of the scene or the original live music (Darby Meyer) that accompanies the performance, the set looks like a contraption dreamed up in partnership by Rube Goldberg and Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, Ivan Hess, and his set design/construction classes at HSU, and Adam Liston created this dazzlingly versatile, fabulous piece. Imagine a chessboard turned topsy-turvy; it is no longer a flat surface, but has new dimensions created by volume that mean you can move any way, anywhere. Players can move to new rooms, more nooks and crannies, entrances and exits, ramparts of arrival and flights to escape.
Taking up every inch of stage and backstage, the set becomes a pastoral scene with a bridge over a river rippling below, a steamy kitchen with cooks busily prepping food, a cabin by a creek in the country, a laundry room, a city flat, a meeting place for malicious minds or a dark warren of rooms and tunnels with the somber feel of a ghetto where "cabbage is the perfume of the poor." Maybe it's a prison or a concentration camp.
The forces battling for control of the center of this board (if this is thought of as a chess match) are cooks. Lots of cooks. Too many cooks. And we all know what too many cooks will do when it comes to broth.
In fiction, nonfiction -- remember Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London --real-life chefs, especially in Europe, enjoy the reputations of attorneys and politicians. Chefs can be conniving, petty, temperamental, jealous, secretive and intensely competitive. To say nothing of nationalistic, doctrinaire and pedantic. And to make sure every short-order cook in the county writes a letter to the editor, let's include EVIL. These cooks don't ask, they interrogate. They don trench coats that snap open with a deathly plastic sound.
In The Wicked Cooks, two opposing gangs of chefs are warring over a secret recipe. They don't walk much. They lurk, they skulk, they crawl, slither and sneak around stirring up trouble.
What is the recipe for? Who are the cooks? Why is the recipe important? Would you know a red herring if one swam by?
You might be in for a resounding headache if you try to fathom meaning from all the metaphorical and symbolic possibilities presented.
Director Jean Bazemore, who deftly put all this together, told me that Gunther Grass, as a very young German soldier, was with one of the first groups of German prisoners sent in by the Americans to clean up Dachau, and all of his writings have been an attempt to come to terms with that experience.
"There is no blatant material about the Holocaust, but metaphorically it deals with what his life was," she said. Add to that the notion that it's hard for a writer to get blamed for attacking the establishment when a cook could be construed as a communist or a capitalist or a fascist or just another incarnation of Wily Coyote.
For decades, literary critics have stretched and strained over the possibilities of meaning in Grass's metaphors and symbols. In The Wicked Cooks, Grass jokes about the absurdity of finding symbols in everything.
Regardless, this delightful avant garde production leaves you with a lot to think about. Much of that is thanks to Bazemore's daring in casting and directing this stellar group.
The cast is composed of some HSU students and a large group of students from the Independent Study Program at Arcata High. Several of these kids have been working with Bazemore in Suzuki music instruction, movement and other performance art classes since they were very young. In addition to carrying full-time academic loads, some are involved in sports, soccer and track. It's a terrific cast, right down to the veiled visages who silently move and remove the unusual props, many constructed by cast members.
Brandon Tomlin plays the Count with such a flat effect that one thinks he is meant to represent anyone of us, anywhere. Others are more animated and stand out with very strong turns: Andres Lovio (Aunt), Missy Hopper in a small but telling bit as Coldwater, Maximillian Foley as Kletterer. Stock, who, done up in chef's white and given lots of stretched body language by Devin Cruickshank most nearly resembles a whiny/sinister noodle strained from the soup.
When I asked Bazemore whether the young cast understood what was going on here, she said, "Oh, yes, they get it." Indeed they do.
Theater lovers, Grass fans, intellectuals bent on argument and those who love extreme games will admire this show, an exceptional production of an unusual play.