Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center, St. Louis


Reviewed by Joan Leyden
Runs September 28 through October 14, 2018

The show’s publicity tells us: “CHEF is the gripping story of how one woman went from being a haute-cuisine chef to a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen” which suggests a linear plotline, but instead this play is more like a good poem – evocative, allusive and compelling.

In a jail cell setting we enter the memories of the female character known simply as the chef as she vividly recalls an existence marked by abuse, and by mental and physical attacks during which she had struggled to lay claim to an authentic life. A gifted woman, who has made cooking an art form, she tries to understand what turn of fate has reduced her to this prison cell. “How did I get here?”

It is never revealed.

What is revealed, however, is the beauty of her approach to nature and her capacity for joy in the handling of food. In a shared meditation that could easily be called “Ode to A Ripe Peach,” she reflects on the beauty of this unpackaged, unimproved piece of fruit. Other societal assaults on nature are subtle as evoked by the musing woman.

It has also been suggested that the play addresses the lack of understanding of the female experience. “Do you care what I have to say or have you already decided?” One need only recall last week’s Senate hearing to empathize.

Linda Kennedy, a petite, older woman who plays the chef, is simply superb in this one-character play. Her range is truly impressive and her sometimes violent struggles with the other re-imagined characters are fierce and completely convincing. This little lady could probably play Medea. Hers is a bravura performance, encompassing extremes of confusion. despair and hope -- and always holding us rapt with interest.

Much credit for Ms. Kennedy’s seamless, commanding interpretation of this challenging script must be shared with her director, Marianne de Pury, a woman with extensive experience on the Continent and in New York City. The two artists appear to be in perfect harmony with the vision of the young, celebrated British playwright/poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who has written on a wide range of provocative subject, and here challenges our attitudes about food, prisoners, violence and each other.

Kristin Cassidy’s spare setting (prison cell with table, chair and bed), and Laura Hanson’s realistic costumes are soberly appropriate, as is Tony Anselmo’s harsh lighting.

One last thought – in the background material on this play is a mention of an interview conducted by Ms. Mahfouz with a real celebrity chef, Ollie Dabbous, whose remark about “making something the best it can be” was part of the inspiration for CHEF. Upstream has accomplished just that by bringing together these three remarkable women.

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