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The real and surreal pleasures of “Cascabel” at Goodman Theatre

The best way to think about “Cascabel” — the dinner/theater/circus/music/dance event initially devised for Lookingglass Theatre in 2012, and now being remounted in the Goodman Theatre’s Owen space — is as an earthy but decidedly upscale 21st century happening specifically designed to stimulate all five of the senses.

Created by a trio of specialists — celebrity chef Rick Bayless (whose passion for all things Mexican is widely known), Lookinglass director Heidi Stillman (who has a way with storytelling), and circus performer Tony Hernandez (on leave from Broadway’s “Pippin” for this show) — it is all about environmental immersion. An intimate experience, it also is a spectacle-filled one. Infused with sometimes nerve-jangling escapades of daring, its 170 “patrons,” who gather at long refectory-style tables, often find themselves perched directly beneath contraptions used by acrobatic daredevils.

Binding all this together is a thinner-than-air scenario with strong echoes of that popular 1992 film, “Like Water for Chocolate.” Audience members enter the theater, which has been transformed into the glorious open patio of a Mexican boarding house (the wholly sublime work of designer Brian Sidney Bembridge), and take their place at rustic tables. A margarita quickly appears, along with a platoon of waiters serving four “quick bites.” A beautifully leaf-wrapped appetizer (a divine salmon ceviche with “crunch” by way of magical popcorn, all of which, to my taste, was the finest part of the meal), can only be eaten once the story is set in motion.

Crucial to this story is the arrival of a new chef (Bayless, who cooks onstage), whose food suddenly triggers wildly crazy and passionate feelings among the boarding house’s staff and visitors. This chef has a secret: He has arrived with the hope that his special mole sauce will trigger the rebirth of joy in the proprietor of the place. It seems the Senora (flamenco dancer Chiara Mangiameli), has been in mourning ever since her first love (yes, the chef himself), left her many, many years before.

As it happens, that “romance” (which is a bit short on chemistry), pales by comparison to all that goes on around it, with help from the live guitar-playing of Carlo Basile, the broadly comic charm of the Maitre d’ (J. Salome Martinez), and the smarmy overtures of the Senora’s other suitor (Thomas J. Cox).

The food sends the Senora’s daughter (the lovely balletic aerialist, Lindsey Noel Whiting), flying onto a chandelier she turns into a trapeze. It inspires a guest (Genevieve Drolet, the stunningly beautiful, impossibly strong and flexible acrobat-contortionist), to indulge in one of the most memorable baths you will ever witness. As for the zany Gardener (Daniel Passer), and his sexually frustrated wife (Lauren Katz), they might just be engaging in their usual sex-charged food fights.

Is it the food that drives Hernandez, as the Houseboy, to walk a clothesline highwire, taking a good five years off your life as you watch him change clothes aloft? Perhaps. As for the most erotic scene in the show, it is the pole acrobatics of two Solitary Travelers — Heloise Bourgeois and William Underwood — whose astonishing pas de deux of interwoven counterbalances is breathtaking.

And what about the rest of the food? The warmly spicy mole sauce was delicious, as was the braised kale, but the beef tenderloin (served with black bean tamales) should have been hotter. The Oaxacan chocolate cake was a sweet treat. The staff of backstage cooks earned their bows.

It’s worth noting that Hernandez carried a Magritte-patterned umbrella during his highwire act — a neat little homage to the Art Institute’s current exhibit, and a suggestion of the very real, and surreal pleasures of “Cascabel.”


When: Through Aug. 31
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $215-$375
Info: (312) 337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission