Caroline Smith’s play, Kitchen Witches, is not particularly original; in fact, it relies on the rather tired trope of women whose relationship is defined by their competition over a man. It isn’t particularly clever; all of the “twists” in the action are pretty predictable and some of the plotting is a bit clunky. But it IS that rarest of creations: a vehicle that is specifically written for two strong older female actors. And, if it isn’t fall-off-your-seat hilarious, its old-fashioned approach is comfortable, often charming, and affords its actors plenty of moments to shine.
Apple Hill Playhouse opened Kitchen Witches on Thursday, August 30, 2018, and it will run through this Saturday, September 8, 2018
The small cast features Jennifer D’Souza as the disciplined, Cordon Bleu trained chef Isobel Lomax, whose chief rival in life and in cooking is the free-spirited home cook Dolly Biddle, played by Lisa Germ. Both women face the cancellation of their individual cooking shows. But an unscripted on-air confrontation results in another chance at local-access fame, as long as these opposites are willing to do a show together. (It’s a bit like The Odd Couple for Food Network.) As might be expected, this uneasy alliance results in kitchen hijinx, both on and off camera, with Dolly’s long-suffering son, Stephen Biddle, played by Joe Schneider, acting as TV producer and general referee between his demanding stars.
The cast are always enthusiastic and more than willing to look silly in the service of comedy, though there are moments of overacting and shouting-as-comedy. Not a lot of subtlety in performances, though the script doesn’t necessarily encourage any. And, weirdly, it seems to me that Isobel and Dolly (scripted to be around 50-ish) are played by actresses who are actually the same age as Dolly’s son Stephen (scripted to be around 30-ish). Since they all seemed to be in their 40s to me, I found the lack of distinction between ages disconcerting and would have preferred stronger make-up choices to age the women.
Directed by Rick Dutrow with set design by Rich Caugherty, lighting design by Clark Stewart and sound design by Chip Kerr, the production elements make use of every inch of the small proscenium stage at Apple Hill Playhouse. Though they proved a bit stodgy, the staging and the designs met the needs of the show adequately. I could wish the person whose finger was on the “Applause” sign button, would be a bit more selective in his use of that button since the audience got “applause-fatigue” pretty early on in the show. This is a prop and costume-heavy show, and the team of Margaret Gilfillan, Pat Beyer, Tina Lepidi-Stewart, the cast, Stephanie Swift, and Rick Dutrow did a creditable job of providing all that was needed with a good sense of humor guiding their choices.
At the end of the day, Apple Hill Playhouse’s production of Kitchen Witches was charming primarily because it was clearly put together with such love and commitment by its community theater, well, community. Every community should have an Apple Hill Playhouse or a Comtra Theater or a Freeport Theatre Festival.
For more information about the Apple Hill Playhouse, visit their website at http://www.applehillplayhouse.org. To reserve a ticket to Kitchen Witches call 724-468-5050.
On a personal note, the theater community in Pittsburgh recently lost one of our luminaries this August with the passing of Barbara Russell. I never had the privilege of working with Ms. Russell, but anyone who has been around the theater scene in Pittsburgh for any length of time has had the joy of seeing at least one of her performances. While I sat watching this production of Kitchen Witches, I kept thinking how incredibly funny Barbara Russell would have been in this show. I kept envisioning her as wild Dolly Biddle, opposite Shirley Tannenbaum as the more uptight Isobel Lomax. For putting me in mind of the talent of Barbara Russell, I thank Apple Hill Playhouse and their production of Kitchen Witches. Barbara Russell will be missed.
Helen Meade got her first theater job at age 17. Over the many intervening years she has worked professionally as an actor, singer, director, producer, administrator, production manager, stage manager, lighting designer, technician, fundraiser, and board member. Through it all, one thing has always remained true: Helen loves live theater. Some of her favorite projects include her educational adaptation, Supernatural Shakespeare, for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Arts Education Department, directing the world premiere of composer Jeremy Beck’s The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel for Tuesday Musical Club, Assistant Directing Madama Butterfly under director Kay Walker Castaldo for Pittsburgh Opera, and working with amazing humans and theatre professionals including Dan Anderson, Chari Shanker, Amanda Foust, Diana Hossack, Maria Levy, Ron Allen, Attilio Favorini, and her mentor and friend, Tony Ferrieri.
Categories: Archived Reviews