Review: ‘The Edible Complex’ gives audience food for thought

Plan-B Theatre's "The Edible Complex." Photo Courtesy: Rick Pollock

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 12, 2016 (Gephardt Daily) — The message of Plan-B Theatre’s “The Edible Complex” is simple: food is your friend.

Created for grades 4 through 6, but accessible to audience members of any age, Plan-B’s latest show is a comedy about 10-year-old Anna, who dreams of being a chef.

Anna, played by Anne Louise Brings, also loves to eat. But her mom, played by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, is constantly watching her weight, and also, as Anna tells us, is obsessed with fashion magazines.

“It takes a certain kind of beauty to be a model,” Anna’s mom says.

So Anna decides to stop eating.

“I decided not to be hungry, ever again,” she tells the audience.

That decision becomes more challenging when Anna’s favorite foods start talking to her. Darby-Duffin also plays a delightful range of foods, all with distinct personalities. A waffle sounds like a Chicago frat boy; spaghetti is an effusive Italian; a veggie shish kabob is an ebullient beauty queen.

Each of the food items also has costume pieces, created with a childlike flair by Aaron Swenson.

Utah-based writer Melissa Leilani Larson’s script is the centerpiece of Plan-B’s fourth annual free elementary school show, which on Oct. 10 began its tour to 15,000 kids at 40 elementary schools in six Utah counties.

The message of the show, directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, is heartbreakingly simple: since food is so fun, why would anyone choose not to eat?

The script does not advocate overeating, and no fast foods are depicted in the play. All the foods we see, artistic director Jerry Rapier noted in a post-show discussion, are foods that kids can cook at home, a nice nod to modern working moms and dads who don’t always have time to whip up a meal. Food is depicted here as something that just enhances life; in Anna’s case, planning what to cook (she has a wooden recipe box from her grandmother she particularly enjoys) is a joy for her. It gives her direction and purpose. When she stops eating, she loses both her direction and her verve.

At the close of the play, it’s homemade veggie shish kabobs that bring Anna and her mom together; her mom says she has cooked for Anna but doesn’t plan to eat herself, and Anna suggests that they eat together. Her mom then explains to Anna that the models in her magazines do not present realistic standards of beauty.

“They’re an ideal, a dream, like, far off and unreachable,” she says.

Following the show, there is a a short question-and-answer period, so children are given an open forum to share their ideas about the show and what they took away from the piece.

I enjoyed the simplicity of the production; there are barely any set pieces or lights, which makes the show suitable for taking into schools, and the food costume pieces are contained in a single large chest. When Darby-Duffin is about to put on a costume piece, she turns to the open chest with her back to the audience, of course raising our interest in what we are about to see. Darby-Duffin successfully creates a fun, imaginative vignette for each and every food, so we eagerly anticipate the next one.

Darby-Duffin also creates an authentic character portrait for the mom, even though it’s not a big role. She explains to Anna near the end that her divorce made her a little insecure, hence her desire not to eat much. The actress and director create a nice character arc as the mom realizes what impact her picky eating has on her daughter.

Brings, too, is a young actress with incredible range. She comes to this show having just played Sally Bowles in Utah Rep’s “Cabaret,” a role that couldn’t be more different. (See Gephardt Daily’s review here.) I am always a little nervous when adults play kids, as the most obvious route is to make broad character choices, but Brings steers clear of shortcuts and makes her Anna into a genuine, well-rounded character.

Brings gives Anna a clear trajectory; the character is at her most joyous when she is talking about food; it’s food that gives her, quite simply, her energy. When she’s restricting her eating, Anna becomes quiet, subdued, withdrawn. It’s a clear message to the children in the audience; food should never be seen as your enemy. Food is a happy place, and that’s an important lesson to people of all ages, but particularly young boys and girls.

“The Edible Complex” will tour through Nov. 18. There is a free public performance as part of the Eccles Theatre open house on Oct. 22: see the first half at 12:30 p.m. in the Black Box and the second half on the outdoor balcony at 1:30 p.m. For more on the open house, click here, and for more on the pla, visit the Plan-B website.

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