Lubricated by a salty margarita purloined in the lobby, clearly besotted with the environmental theatricality of period Mexican chic, and with the taste of Rick Bayless' tuna ceviche apparently dancing cartwheels on his lips, one intensely aroused gentleman at the Lookingglass Theatre opening Tuesday night just couldn't contain his glee. "This," he shouted, plenty loud enough for all of his communal table-mates to hear, "is an experience."
At that juncture of the evening, the main show known as "Cascabel" hadn't really fully started. But it was a pretty good one-word review, although I might have gone with "aphrodisiac." For across the room, one hot-and-heavy couple was so taken with each other in this evocative sensory setting one started to ponder how good this unusually commercial Lookingglass enterprise might end up being for Magnificent Mile hotels. Or the local birth rate.
For there can be no question that Lookingglass, in partnership with the High Priest of Mexican cuisine, does indeed deliver a very sexy and sensual experience with "Cascabel, " a high-end ($200-$250) dinner-and-show attraction that's as far away from any beef and boards -- or hand-held Medieval chicken dinners -- as Tibet is from Tijuana. If this show -- which features a loose, brief story that makes plenty of room for beautiful bodies twisting themselves into intimate circus acts, as well as the on-stage cooking of the celebrity chef himself -- were in Las Vegas, it would fall into an established aesthetic and have some competition. But there's nothing even remotely like it in Chicago: if raw demand were the only determinant of a show's future at a non-profit entity, it's hard to see why Lookingglass would ever need to close this one down. Too many people were having too good a time.
Lookingglass and Bayless get a lot right and deftly avoided some tricky traps. The logistics of the night are flawless, with Bayless' food, the same food you see the man cook on stage in real time, perfectly coordinated in its delivery to your seat and deftly integrated with the rest of the theatrical proceedings. You're never rushed when it comes to the eating of the three courses. With the simple narrative (mysterious chef eventually seduces emotionally blocked owner of boarding house with sexy food, igniting the passions of the other hotel staffers throughout his culinary and romantic quest) placed on temporary hold, the show simply slips into the background, coming back into focus at just the right moment. If you're reading this to find out if Bayless can act, the most honest answer is that he is perfectly capable of doing all that this show requires him to do, which is mostly to cook. But he listens. He's vulnerable. He's rather enigmatic. He does not pull focus but takes his place in the ensemble and disappears into his character to the extent that many people at my table did not even know he was there for quite a while. Even while eating his food.
And in allowing Bayless not to be a circus act himself, which would have been disastrous, but rather take his place as the kind of quietly spiritual father of these food-driven proceedings—if you think of Prospero in "The Tempest," you have a sense of what this clever show is going for—Bayless' collaborators Tony Hernandez (who skillfully conceived both the idea and the circus-rooted language of the show) and Heidi Stillman (who directed with what was clearly a firm organizational hand) made a very smart choice.
The actual acts themselves, integrated into the characters who hang around this boarding house, are stellar (fans of theCirque du Soleil'seroticized Las Vegas show "Zumanity" will be very familiar with the conceit, and even some of the talent, but then the Cirque does not serve Bayless' food). The contortionist Alexandra Pivaral contorts in a boarding-house bathtub, while wet. The not-so-solitary "Solitary Travelers" Shenea Booth and Nicolas Besnard, both formidable gymnasts, wrap themselves beautifully around each others' bodies, expressing emotional need as much as physical desire. Lindsay Noel Whiting, the daughter of the house and also an exciting aerialist, does the best work I've ever seen her do. And the remarkable Hernandez, one of the few characters who dons rather than sheds their clothes, dresses himself atop a high-wire clothes line. Even the clowns are sexy: the boarding-house gardeners, played by Anne Goldmann and Jonathan Taylor, share the same bits of bananas, throwing them from mouth to mouth.
In the best moments of the piece, the Maitre D' (deftly played by Jesse Perez) instructs the audience on how to eat. "I want us all to inhale deeply," he said, as scores of paying people willingly stuck their noses into the ceviche, as if on cue. "Nobody take a bite just yet," he says, as accusatory looks fills the room. Many a master chef, of course, harbors dark thoughts about the careless way in which people consume his or her food. In this show, Bayless, through this intermediacy, can actually control the very act of eating his finery. It must be satisfying, even if the humble determination of his character does not allow him to smile.
There are things to improve. Although Bayless does indeed cook the food—the aromas alone are enough to sustain much of the evening—you don't see him do it as much as I would have enjoyed. You wouldn't want to spoil the rustic simplicity of the environment with screens or mirrors, but it would be worth playing with angles. One character known as the Suitor (Thomas J. Cox) does not seem to have much to do, even though Cox is perhaps the best actor on this stage. And things in the very simple story wrap up a bit too fast, even for these circumstances, although you can blame the mole.
But if you're craving a little music, dance (the owner of this establishment, played by Chiara Mangiameli, is a formidable flamenco dancer), fine vittles and the sensual accouterments of the boudoir circus, and you have someone who you'd like to share all these things with, well, "Cascabel" is the sexiest and best tasting show in town.
When: Through April 29
Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins
Tickets: $200-250 at 312-337-0665Copyright © 2015, RedEye