Theater Review: “Cuisine & Confessions” — A Delicious Spectacle

The 7 Fingers can be depended on to fill everyone’s belly with spectacle.

Cuisine & Confessions, created and staged by Shana Carroll and Sébastien Soldevila. Performed by The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts de la Main). A co-presentation by ArtsEmerson and Jonathan Reinis Productions at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston, MA. Through August 7.

Matias Plaul in "Photo: Alexandre Galliez

Matias Plaul defying gravity “Cuisine & Confessions.” “Photo: Alexandre Galliez.

By Ian Thal

The set (designed by Ana Cappelluto) is just the sort of spacious kitchen a gourmand dreams of: open cabinets stocked with bowls, flatware, and appliances, with shelves so high that a rolling librarian’s ladder is necessary. As the show begins, the nine acrobats who make up The 7 Fingers (recently renamed from Les 7 Doigts de la Main, presumingly to facilitate marketing in Anglophone countries) are alternately engaging in stage antics, mingling with the audience, or preparing to make an omelette.

Montreal’s 7 Fingers is a second generation nouveau cirque troupe, meaning that its emphasis is as much on theater as it is on exercising circus skills. 7 Fingers founders Shana Carroll and Sébastien Soldevila previously worked with the celebrated Cirque du Soleil, but their aesthetic is in many ways a rebellion against the better known company. For instance, they eschew fantasy — rather than fanciful makeup and costumes, their artists dress in something resembling street clothes and their stage personae appear to be based on some version of their ‘real’ selves. There is little fantastical pretense: the only special effects are the skills that the performers have been honing since childhood and some clever prop design by Cloé Alain-Gendreau.

The theme of the evening, food, is quickly established: individual cast members nostalgically describe what they ate when they were young while others engage in a seemingly improvisational dance made up of somersaults, backflips, cartwheels, and movements. Acrobatic stunts are not treated as simple tricks, but as gestures and figures that make up an adroit choreography.

The comfort food of home becomes the repast of romance after Melvin Diggs notes that the ingredients of “the perfect omelette” are “eggs, peppers, onions, and love.” Mishannock Ferrero attempts to woo an audience member with song and the traditional breakfast dish. Meanwhile, Pablo Pramparo does an extraordinary juggling act — large egg beaters take the place of the the usual clubs.

In truth, very few of the acrobatic acts have more than the most tangential connection with the evening’s various anecdotes about food (and the confessions rarely go deep). But who cares, given the calibre of the 7 Fingers’ performances? It’s hard to see the link between Russian-born Anna Kichtenchenka’s love for borscht and her virtuoso contortion act while twirling from aerial silks. But the feat is so thrilling the theme falls by the wayside. Circus of this caliber celebrates the extraordinary. The ordinary is just an excuse.

And amazing things happen throughout the evening: Diggs and Sidney Iking Bateman leap through wooden frames that would seem to allow only a couple of inches leeway on either side of their shoulders. Yet they land as gracefully as cats.

Nella Niva describes growing up in a Finnish circus family that tasted of “vodka and cotton candy.” To an original arrangement of Tom Waits’ “Tango Till They’re Sore,” she performs a charming narrative dance — touching on innocence and inebriation — about her life up until she joined the 7 Fingers.

Emile Pinault’s solo moment is a moodier affair – short but powerfully built, he is able to send his body propelling through the air over the stage, only to go completely limp the moment his toes touch the floor – one wonders if it was meant as a metaphor for the mood swings of bipolar disorder.

There’s other evidence that 7 Fingers’ version of nouveau cirque has the potential to deliver more than just light comedy and thrills. Matias Plaul’s solo piece begins with his confession that he hadn’t seen his father since he was eight months old. The elder Plaul was a communist-affiliated political activist in Argentina who was “disappeared” in 1977 by the ruling military junta. Plaul’s mastery of the Chinese pole is complete — he seems to defy gravity. The performer does not merely climb or twirl around it with grace, as his cast-mates do. Plaul stands on it – his body horizontal to the floor below him. He alternates between talking about how his father was taken to a concentration camp, wondering what his last meal before he was executed might have been, and standing on the length of the pole looking down. The room is silent; Plaul’s breathing can be heard throughout the auditorium. It’s a chilling moment, made ever more resonate for those who know that the junta’s preferred means for murdering political dissidents was dropping them out of helicopters and airplanes in “death flights.” Could this knowledge have influenced Plaul’s choice of specialization?

Food and its rituals are treated with humor when Ferrero discusses the kitchen table of his childhood in Providence, Rhode Island. The other Fingers pause to peel bananas for banana bread. Perhaps it is because acrobats thrive on precision and clowns embrace chaos, but there is a lost opportunity here for ingenious variations on the classic ‘slipping on a banana peel’ gag.

There is some excellent music throughout the show. A number of composers and arrangers are listed — Nans Bortuzzo, Raphaél Cruz, Colin Gangé, Spike Wilner, and DJ Pocket – so it’s difficult to assign credit. Besides the aforementioned Waits song, there’s a fine arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro, a hip-hop/plunderphonic remix of Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” and an imaginatively elaborate diabolo act performed by Bateman.

The show ends with the smell of fresh baked banana bread (recipes are in the playbill). Sadly, this time around there was not enough for everyone in the audience. But no matter — The 7 Fingers can be depended on to fill everyone’s belly with spectacle.

Arts Fuse interview with 7 Fingers co-founder Shana Carroll.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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