Rjyan Kidwell took my fork. I was planning to continue using it. Sure, the former City Paper contributor was playing Albert Spica, one-fourth of the titular quartet in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” the Nick Vyssotsky adaptation of Peter Greenaway’s 1989 movie currently staged by Annex Theater. And I was merely one of the 30 audience members seated at a long table inside Canteen where the play transpires, but still. My fork. I had used it to eat the evening’s first two courses, a kale salad with Cailletier olives, anchovies, and black garlic dressing, followed by a pappardelle with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, with or without squid ink (do try the indigo coated noodles: yum). I was looking forward to using that fork to consume the pork shank, roasted fall vegetables, and polenta cake and mushroom ragu. But he took it. And then shoved it into actress Carly Bales’ face.
If you’ve never seen the original movie, not really spoiling anything here: Why Albert does so is important to the plot. That he does so isn’t surprising. Vyssotsky sticks religiously close to the movie’s plot and characterization, which means Albert is a crass, cruel, bigoted bully, the kind of man who opens the play by having his gang of garish goons help him humiliate a man who owes him money. His wife, Georgina (Sarah Lamar), quietly lurks to the side while this goes on in the alley behind Canteen, where everybody is gathered before we’re herded, by one of Albert’s dolts, through the kitchen and into the main dining room, where chef Richard (the game Ishai Barnoy) and his staff are setting up for dinner. He’s the cook. Already seated is Michael (Maddie Hicks), in pressed white shirt and glasses, reading a book. Over the next roughly two hours, Albert is going to insult, berate, offend, and occasionally assault his wife, his peers, and the restaurant staff. Michael and Georgina are going to catch each other’s eye and begin repairing to the bathroom together for romantic trysts. Michael is the lover, and once Albert figures out what’s going on, well, murder is the least of the sins he may think about committing.
Fair warning: I’m not merely a fan of the movie, I regard it a seminal statement of 1980s politically/culturally agitated ugly beauty (see also: the Butthole Surfers’ “Locust Abortion Technician,” Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays,” David Hammons’ “Higher Goals,” etc.). Every decision made for Greenaway’s movie adds to and/or reinforces its commitment to decadent savagery, from Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes to Michael Nyman’s stirring music to Sacha Viernay’s opulent cinematography to Greenaway’s formalistic and color-coded mise-en-scène—it all combines to take place in some metaphorical cinematic place that isn’t the present but feels distressingly too recognizable. Also: Helen Mirren.
Annex’s production, under the direction of Emily Hall, impressively manages to capture the agitated malevolence of the movie, which exploits cinema’s silly-putty reality, in the unforgiving tangibility of the theater. That Annex realizes this cruel, darkly comic, and cold-blooded revenge saga as immersive dinner theater, that 1970s family-friendly entertainment that enticed people to take in a play while enjoying some baked Virginia ham, is an ingenious choice. The format has acquired a layer of déclassé kitsch over the years, something to be experience purely for the sarcastic giggles; here it reinforces the play’s thematic ideas.
The changes and additions Vyssotsky makes to Greenaway’s script adjust for a move to the United States—and Canteen’s neighborhood, specifically—but he also adds little flourishes that introduce some new tangents to consider. Toward the end, Georgina asks Richard about his menu, sparking a meditation on why he prices black things higher (which is in the movie), along with a number of other reasons something might be more expensive (vegans). This brief monologue offers a bit of commentary to the foods served over the course of the play, and poke a bit of fun at the snobby attitudes the food movement has nurtured. Admittedly, those values are rooted in eating to become more healthy, both as an individual and as a society, but they’ve also become ways to reproduce classist, reactionary thinking. (Recall: Canteen chef Dane Nester, credited as the play’s culinary designer, was one-third of the 2009 Sondheim Prize-winner Baltimore Development Cooperative, which not only tackled socioeconomic stressors through urban interventions but also mounted group dinners as moments of activist gestation with Stew. Dude obviously recognizes that food can be an agent of change but also a vehicle for maintaining the status quo.)
Annex has invited us to eat during this play for a reason, and if you’re one of those who can see how Greenaway’s film could be read as a posh middle finger aimed at Thatcher’s England, it’s possible to see how Annex’s “Cook” wants to scream its disappointment about today’s America. The scenes that take place in the bathroom are short videos projected onto a screen. They’re shot in grainy, jagged video that resembles security-camera footage, reminders of omnipotent surveillance. All the violence in the play, and there’s plenty, takes place offstage in the alley (which we view through a window), or is suggested (you don’t see Kidwell actually put a fork into Bales’ cheek, but after he picks it up off the table, rushes his hand toward her face, and she emits a sphincter-puckering scream, you certainly believe he has)—suggestive of the endless war and drone bombing we don’t really have to see that much but which people all over and experiencing the repercussions of. As for having a woman play Michael: While same-sex marriage has been recognized in 31 states, the severity of physical violence against LGBT people increased in 2013.
Also: Rjyan Kidwell. Since making his acting debut in Annex’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik” in 2012, Kidwell has often portrayed the kind of wannabe know-it-all alpha-male dude that he spent a good part of his music career mocking, and Albert is an impressive outing in this guise. Clad in a white sports coat, plain shirt, tennis white shorts, and topsiders, Kidwell’s Albert is like a normcore bro’s version of a Miami drug dealer, and Kidwell animates him with a snide braggadocio as if he’s channeling Matthew Lillard in, well, anything. It’s inspired casting: This is what the bigoted, asshole, misogynist blowhard of today can look like.
All these choices—one more: During dinner there’s a routine featuring a pair of dancing girls, a singer, and a saxophonist that is intentionally atrocious—conspire to give this “Cook” a potent sucker punch. As audience members we’re the educated, in-the-know Baltimoreans attending this 30-seat underground theater production. We sit to dine with Albert and his friends and watch an evening of vile human behavior while gorging ourselves with a delectable meal—the playbill suggests it was predominantly locally sourced—and wine. And then we’re free to go home, perhaps thinking about the politics of responsible food and maybe even responsible politics, period. But maybe we’re merely feeling sated and comfortable following a nice meal and night out. Bon appétit.
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” Adapted by Nick Vyssotsky from the screenplay by Peter Greenaway At Annex Theater, plays through Nov. 2. For more information, please visit baltimoreannextheater.org.