THE ARAB-ISRAELI COOKBOOK by Robin Soans, directed by Joel Greenberg, with Victor Ertmanis, David Fox, Barbara Gordon, Mark McGrinder, Jeff Miller, Kimwun Perehinec and Maria Ricossa. Presented by Studio 180 at Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Previews from Friday (March 3), opens Wednesday (March 8) and runs to April 1, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. $15-$35, some Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110, 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
It's lunch break for Mark Mc Grinder and Maria Ricossa, but there's little eating going on.
Why? The two are pretty well stuffed from noshing during rehearsals for The Arab-Israeli Cookbook.
British writer Robin Soans's docu-style play, drawn from interviews with some 80 people in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, has a lot to do with food preparation and dining. Sharing a meal, in fact, is one of the central themes of the piece.
"That theme wasn't the creators' focus at first," says McGrinder, a core member of producing company Studio 180. "But the people being interviewed tended to get so excited about discussing their lives that they invariably said, "Come home with me I'll cook and we'll talk.'
"That's how they could best communicate their feelings, best relate to the interviewers."
No surprise, since a meal is a place for sharing, for bringing together and airing different viewpoints in an expansive atmosphere.
During much of the play, in fact, the seven actors, playing more than 40 characters, describe and cook stuffed zucchini, mujadara, hummus, chicken zatar and veal fillet.
Yes, you'll enjoy whiffs of garlic, curry and olive oil as part of this theatre-going experience.
Beneath the aromas, though, are tales of people who cope with a world where bombing or gunfire can happen any time.
"But it's not a history lesson, not the kind of reportage you'd see on the news," offers Ricossa. "It's an evening of stories, and that's the best kind of theatre. What the audience gets is a massive spectrum of views and endless contradictions about how the characters live their lives.
"Though they're conflicted every step of the way, people thrive on conflict, as happens in dysfunctional families."
Take Ricossa's two characters, for instance. Rena is a wealthy American Jewish woman who's decided to live in Israel. It's where she feels at home, says Rena, though she's aware that something might happen whenever she goes out.
"The point is that she doesn't focus on it," says Ricossa, whose recent stage work includes Tamara and Bea's Niece. "Rena doesn't play the fear. She just gets on with her life. The world around her makes her grab every moment and savour it. That's Rena's throughline "We are here.'"
Ricossa also plays an Arab mother of four. One of her sons has been killed during a curfew skirmish; another, deported to Gaza, she expects to never see again.
"Before I did this play," confesses the actor, "I couldn't imagine this mother's combination of grief and pride. Now I have a human connection with her, see her seeking some kind of resolution."
The actors appreciate having had four weeks of rehearsal to watch documentaries, research historic and contemporary material and listen to speakers who offered them different perspectives on life in the Middle East.
The production, as a result, offers a balanced look at the characters, though audiences sometimes side with one group or another. When the company did a reading last fall at the Miles Nadal JCC, certain viewers saw it as pro-Jewish and others as pro-Palestinian.
There's nothing wrong with theatre that inspires audiences to share their viewpoints passionately after a performance.
McGrinder's two main characters couldn't be more different. One's half of a Jewish gay couple they cook an enticing Thai meal before going out to party and the other's Fadi, a Greek Orthodox Arab teen studying law and medicine.
"Hungry for life, he is ready to put aside thoughts of his own goals to prepare the future for his children," notes the actor, who's appeared in The Laramie Project and spent five years at the Shaw Festival. "He worries that the immediate future doesn't look better than the violent present, but Fadi still wants a better world for his own children."
Politics aside, cooking and eating onstage can be a tricky business. Will the food be ready when the appropriate line has to be delivered?
"We're organized as a team on that," confides Ricossa. "There's some pre-show prep, and we also work communally the characters in one scene prepare something that the next scene's people eat or continue cooking."
"It's like passing on the baton in a race," adds McGrinder.
"The preparation becomes its own choreography. But what's technical has now become an organic part of the show."