Whether it’s that time you ate parmesan marshmallows in the shape of Oreo cookies at elBulli or the time your mom took the SpaghettiOs off your highchair tray and dumped them unceremoniously on your whiny little noggin, everyone who has ever eaten has a food story, and a lot of them are funny. With Food Confessions, the new stage comedy that opens this weekend at the Lobero Theatre, noted Santa Barbara actress Nancy Nufer takes on the added role of playwright and aims straight for the heart of the food/conversation connection. Nufer intends her work not only as a stimulus to laughter in the theater but also as a stimulus to discussions that will go on long after the curtain comes down — “discussions that carry on through the next meal, and the next, and a few more over the coming weeks,” she explained. “My dearest hope is to stimulate a continuing dialogue. As Stephen Sondheim said, the last collaborator is the audience. It’s a tall order, but Food Confessions looks to be a good bet to cook up something delicious and satisfying that will have theater audiences lining up for seconds.
A Renaissance in Santa Barbara Theater
In addition to dealing with a universal and culturally relevant topic, Food Confessions represents the latest chapter in another, less-well-known story about the incredible surge of synergy that’s been running through the Santa Barbara theater scene in recent years. There are a lot of ways to look at it, but one particularly compelling angle is that this era is a result of the 2001 demise of the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera and the subsequent formation of half a dozen influential smaller theater companies operating in and around Paseo Nuevo’s Center Stage Theater. In a veritable “American Riviera renaissance” of collaboration, the city’s top actors and actresses have begun teaming up with the best directors and producers to cross the old company lines. For example, the Lobero played host to a similarly ambitious Santa Barbara “dream team” when Lit Moon director John Blondell joined forces with producers Albert Ihde and Ellen Pasternack of the Santa Barbara Theatre for a memorable production of Our Town back in 2010. Since then, Genesis West, Lit Moon, Ensemble Theatre Company, and Rubicon Theatre in Ventura have all followed suit, sharing talent in a way that has given the Santa Barbara theater scene a noticeable shot of artistic adrenaline.
Original Story by Nancy Nufer
This time, the dream belongs to Nufer, who is taking a quantum leap by moving beyond the standard theater repertory to create an entirely original show. And the responsibility for making that dream a reality has gone to her longtime friend and fixture of the S.B. theater community, Food Confessions producer Rod Lathim. Together, they landed the region’s hottest director, Jenny Sullivan, who is fresh off winning a double Indy Award in 2012 for directing Steel Magnolias at Rubicon and The Lion in Winter at Ensemble Theatre Company. More recently, Sullivan copped a coveted Los Angeles Ovation Award nomination for her direction of yet another show, The Mystery of Irma Vep at Rubicon. In fact, Irma Vep, which has five Ovation nominations, including Best Production of a Play (Large Theater), starred Jamie Torcellini, who is one of several secret weapons operating behind the scenes of Food Confessions, to which he has contriubted choreography.
To give this original play the requisite launching boost, Sullivan asked the five cast members — Robert Lesser, Devin Scott, Dan Gunther, Kara Revel, and Nufer — for something she’s not usually so tough about. “I observed some workshop readings of this material over the last year while Nancy was writing it,” Sullivan said, “and what I saw made me confident enough to request that we start rehearsals with everybody off book, because the staging I had in mind is quite complex, almost like a dance. In fact, we have been referring to the opening sequence as ‘The Ballet of the Shopping Bags.’”
Happy, Hungry People
Sullivan’s tantalizing remark about a shopping-bag ballet only scratches the surface of what theatergoers can expect from Food Confessions. It’s a linked series of individual speeches, à la The Vagina Monologues, and the entire ensemble remains onstage throughout the show. The two women and three men of the cast all play at least three characters each, and heavily choreographed food preparation figures prominently. For the closing sequence, Sullivan said that not only will the audience witness some serious culinary sleight of hand, but they’ll also build up a serious appetite. “Somebody should be standing in the lobby with a plate of freshly baked cookies,” said Sullivan, “because people are going to get very hungry watching this show.”
Her wish is Lathim and the Lobero Live series’ command, apparently, because a quartet of Santa Barbara restaurant sponsors have signed on to prepare special meals to be served onsite during intermission and in the Lobero Courtyard after each performance. Aldo’s, Fresco Café, Olio e Limone Ristorante, and Sojourner Café & Restaurant have all offered to put the real thing on the table and in the bellies of those laughing along with Food Confessions.
The Writer as Performer
At the center of all this deliciousness stands Nufer, a lanky Santa Barbara native with a taste for drama and a gift for comedy. Although Nufer began working on Food Confessions with the idea that she would remain offstage, her own instantly recognizable comic voice called her back into the acting mix. “Nancy’s voice was so clear in what she wrote that it seemed foolish not to let her speak at least some of these great lines,” explained Sullivan. “So that’s what we did.” And while Nufer’s approach to her subject may be comic, don’t expect anything too bitterly satirical or overtly clinical in her treatment of so-called “food issues.” “When the title of a production is Food Confessions,” Nufer wrote, “people can sometimes get the wrong idea. We’ve all experienced productions where an entertainer indulges in some very painful soul-searching onstage, and we suffer along with them. Food Confessions is not that show.
“Food Confessions explores the way we each interact with our family/loved ones/strangers more than how we interact with our actual meals. We look at food as a language to express who and what we are … which is to say, a little bit nuts.” In other words, if we really are what we eat, then how we talk about food and what that says about us is bound to be interesting, especially when it’s funny. With this talented group of people leading the way, Food Confessions is poised to kick off a discussion that will last at least as long as the food does, and that will leave all the lucky people willing to share in it with an appetite for more.
Catch Food Confessions at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) Friday-Sunday, September 21-23. the play will move to Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre later this year as part of the 2013 season. For tickets and information, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.