Let Me Cook For You
At the start of Orietta Crispino’s Let Me Cook for You | Trilogy, fifteen or so “dinner guests' watch Orietta, laying on her side in a small, all-white-painted space, atop a table covered in white butcher’s block paper. She wears a short black dress; one black high-heel is on (dangling from her foot) and the other lies on the floor just a few feet away from the audience. Are we meant to consume her? Is this some kind of funeral viewing? She stirs. Is she coming back from the dead or just waking from a bad dream? I feel excited and a little scared. Orietta tumbles to the floor. She’s on her hands and knees. Her cleavage. Black mascara. Red lips. She looks at us: Her observers—Are we the ones who will be devoured? No. It’s almost as if, despite having just begun, she’s too exhausted to go on. But then she does.
Early in the performance presented by Theaterlab & Cherry Lane Alternative, Orietta writes on a separate piece of ceiling-to floor-long, white butchers-block paper in black magic marker: “This is not about the past. It is about reading the signs of the present piercing into the future.” She jokes how “piercing” is a hard word for her to spell. She also mentions that this is the first play she’s written in English, rather than her native Italian—“Here I have completed the translation of myself from one language into the other.”
Orietta utilizes numerology (tracking important dates for both her and her audience) and astrology (she has some of us read old horoscopes that were initially used as brainstorming prompts) to begin her storytelling. These unlikely allies of coincidence and chance launch her into a constellation of selves and ancestors, transmuting her past into a mythology of her own making. Soon Orietta is (literally) cooking for us—and we move from a somewhat philosophical mode to a domestic one. She creates an intimate, in-the-round dinner party seemingly out of thin air—pots, pans and utensils appear as if by magic—then there’s David Byrne singing, then wine, peppers and zucchini simmering, the smell of garlic and oil and plates filled with food—This is a party whose beautifully rehearsed spontaneity, directed by Liza Cassidy, feels excellently executed by Orietta who, through it all, remains in total control of her meticulously crafted solipsism.
Orietta asks us early: “Does it really matter if a story is real? Does it really matter if this story is mine?” and by the end of Part One I’m still not sure what is fact and what is fiction but here I am, awe-struck witness to Orietta (and/or her character’s) traumas—including a father who abandoned her and a mother who committed suicide by driving off a cliff. I’m also full from her food, smiling because of her clowning and a bit tipsy from the wine she’s provided. This isn’t just theater, it's hospitality. Orietta asks us to listen, watch, smell and taste and in the process we become, not only her audience but gracious guests.
As the granddaughter of a Haitian immigrant, to me, it’s not the conjuring of memories, but rather the attempt to remember them correctly that’s the hardest. And, I’ve found that the act of cooking provides much greater access to this psyche. It’s visual, auditory and kinesthetic memory stirring in the same pot. Orietta’s cooking is her attempt.
Without explaining the meal in detail, Orietta simply says that it’s a replication of a dinner she created with “non stereotypical Italian” leftovers; this type of meal— an unplanned one— is what she calls the tastiest kind.
In creating something new, one’s body, mind and spirit are forced to step out of their comfort zone. In creating something unfamiliar (the meal) familiarly (the cooking), you creolize, or revise, routine. Slight revision of routine invites detours towards something new, like an unvisited memory.
The meal felt especially cozy because it required the assistance of an audience member to prepare it. A bed of rice needed to be plated for each portion of vegetables. We attended the show with our friend haruna, and I was touched by how quickly they volunteered. I’ve played sous to many kitchen tops and always feel shyly about how unevenly I chop vegetables. I do things out of order. I like to cook privately so that I can do it wrong without scrutiny. It’s deeply relaxing to watch Orietta —someone devoid of self-consciousness— prepare something in front of you and draw others into that preparation with grace and humor.
This Will Look Good On You
We move from one white semi-gloss room to another. While the performer and backstory remain the same, the tenor has changed. The light is brighter in room number two, as though heaven were a fluorescent change station. Surrounded by really bright clothing, Orietta listens to opera and moves through her wardrobe. It’s ripe with vintage designer gems, hung on racks and shoved into boxes. She tells us it's finally time she got around to Marie Kondo-ing her collection, and we do the work of stitching the displayed pieces together into a narrative. An Italian woman, an actress with good taste, moves to New York in the 90s, maybe a former party girl. She’s lived in a lot of places, moved extensively. This wardrobe is in part her mother’s and she was once married to a man who despised it.
At a certain point during this segment of the trilogy, I became exhausted by the show-and-tell routine of the closet. Maybe I even felt sad for the clothes. I wanted to see them loose upon the streets. I wanted to see a pretty woman in the front row slide into a Versace. But then, something interesting happened.
Orietta began to recall a 1979 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Giorgio Strehler where a set made of meters and meters of blue silk collapsed around the magical duke Prospero as he made his way toward the audience. Like most theater nerds, I’m a sucker for the Tale of the Seminal Production. Then, I realized that this whole time she had been costuming herself as Prospero in purple. And the purple, forbidden in Italian theaters on account of it being the Lenten wardrobe of priests, communicates that this duke “dukes” on her own terms. Feminism! Sacrilege! Play! Orietta recites Prospero’s monologue to us in Italian as we follow her out into the dark black-blue of the lobby into part three.
Orietta says she only wears black now. She says her ex-husband didn't like her (now un-closeted) colorful wardrobe. She questions the identity manifested through these gifted garments. I thought about Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Mary in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In both of those plays we witness a grotesque and troubling regression—a stepping back into the past via clothing but here, Orietta seems to be restructuring these shed skins of her past into something new.
One thing about Orietta is that while she may be able to cook, the woman can’t sew. And that’s okay! Only, this small fact that she utters in passing stuck with me in what felt like a walk-in closet (with the grandeur of a Greenwich studio); it felt like a portal for a revisitation. She shimmies her way into clothes from her and her mother’s past, showing us how her mother often bought her and Orietta an outfit that was 98% the same, never 100%; who can forget the yellow blazers for mom and daughter that were exactly the same except for the gold buttons and collar shape? And all the while this is happening, I find myself wondering—well, what if Orietta could sew? Would she make the clothes of her past fit who she is becoming, or is it more convenient, more comforting, less confrontational to the present to suck it in and adjust yourself to ancestors’ past?
Let Me Dream For You
At this point, I’ve undergone sensory overload in the demystifying of Orietta’s memories and the creation of her own myth. After Prospero’s monologue, we’re led through a now dimly lit lobby and back into the room where our night began, only this time it’s pitch black. With a weak flashlight, an usher helps us to our seats around a turf floor.
In the darkness, four of my senses are given a break and a calming, pink noise-like soundscape (designed by Asa Marder) begins. After 3 minutes of tuning in, I give up on trying to decipher what I hear, and soon enough faint echoes of incoherent voices come and go.
Being thrown into a cleansing ritual feels necessary right now; in my faux solitude, I can piece together Orietta without looking to her or who I’ve gathered with for [re]affirmation. It’s the first time that night I sense a separation between Orietta and us, or perhaps we have merged. She is "dreaming for us," after all. Suddenly, Orietta's mic'd up, almost ASMR-like voice, describes her encounters with Christian Italian wonders, such as the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and a white, modern house, not able to find her father, but only herself. Are we in on Orietta’s dream, in her closed eyes? Or, is this her reality–was a dark void of potential the space that she needed to enter all along to dictate her own mythology?
Perhaps too suddenly, a dim light (designed by Eric Nightengale) gradually fills the space and Orietta, in white, satin PJs behind a white clothed table cuts and offers us Colomba Pasquale (or Easter Dove Bread). It’s a true Catholic, Holy Communion—a communion of the people Orietta has gathered, communion of the night and communion of the tales Orietta has bestowed upon us. We eat the bread, and leave, a la Jesus Christ’s “Do this in memory of me.”
And the bread was very good, soft and not too sweet. I recalled a bread that my grandmother made every Easter when I was a child. The color was yellow and baked inside were whole cooked eggs. I believe they still retained their shells. I have not eaten that bread in a long time.
Later that night, wishing I could have another piece of that not-too-sweet Easter cake, I realize that the white program is actually made from the long white sheets of paper that hung behind Orietta at the start of the show. They have been cut up, folded elegantly, lined with a piece of gold card-stock and stuffed with the maps, postcards and pictures you’ll use as talismans to remember, not only Orietta’s mythologies, but Orietta herself. In this way Let Me Cook for You seems to be saying, “Do Not Forget Me” and I don’t think any of us will.
I find that the more I turn an experience over in my mind, the more endeared I become to it, almost perversely. Throughout Orietta’s performance, I found myself mirroring her affects—her smile, her polite charm, her giddiness, her winking flirtations. If she wished to be a good host, then I too wished to be a good guest. As the performance progressed, I became anxious, reflecting on my own fleeting youth and beauty. When the lights came up at the end of the third act, patrons casually milled about the room, waiting to speak with Orietta, but I did not long for this moment. I found myself standing in the semi-dark lobby of Theaterlab, hoping Joey and Marissa would find me..
I went home and wrote a crude story about this experience of feeling stranded, even when my friends were mere feet away. In it, an uncouth Everyman finds himself at a special dinner party set not in a typical house, but on a boat. The host ushers the Everyman into a closet before he then hears the sound of the boat being loosed from a dock; he is floating out to sea. The host is whispering in his ear, asking if he wants to play with her. A massive piece of paper falls from the ceiling of the closet and covers the Everyman’s whole body. When he tears it free, she's gone and he understands that he was a character in a dumb show created for the pleasure of the other guests just outside the closet. Everyone else is capable of understanding the events of the evening as metaphors, but the Everyman is certain that the house is a boat and that for a certain period of time he was really alone in that dark closet, wallowing in the water.
I suppose this is a long way of concluding that I got lost inside Orietta’s reality and left it less sure of my own. Maybe her work opened the door to my own shadow histories of genesis and family that at some point I unwittingly excised from the record. I continue to think about the piece.