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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW To Master the Art
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-05-14

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Playwright: William Brown and Doug Frew

At: TimeLine ( sic ) Theatre, streaming. Tickets: TimelineTheatre.com; $15-$25. Runs through: June 7

TimeLine Theatre commissioned To Master the Art in 2008 and presented its world premiere two years later. It was remounted in 2013 for a commercial run at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place, and this streaming video is that 2013 restaging. It's pay-per-view, giving you ( and your household ) a week in which to view the show, once you sign up.

To Master the Art is a portrait of celebrated chef Julia Child and her husband, Paul Child, covering roughly 15 years from their marriage in 1946 up to the 1961 publication of Julia's magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Most of the play is set in Paris, although they only lived there for five years, but we can allow authors Doug Frew and William Brown ( also the director ) a bit of poetic license.

It's vastly entertaining, especially Act I ,which is peppered it with big laughs. Wisely, the laughs are not simply gags but always grow out of the characters. Act II grows more serious—and more intellectually substantial—as Child and her cookbook collaborators ( Simone Beck and Louisette Berthold ) struggle to find a publisher, while Paul—who was a State Department officer with the United States Information Agency—is caught up in the shameful Red Scare of the 1950s.

Indeed, To Master the Art constantly contrasts American culture with European culture of the 1950s and America comes out looking xenophobic, paranoid and boorish. The play's observations on American political and social culture are not lost in today's political climate.

The play also makes clear how deeply Julia and Paul loved each other, and how especially supportive and encouraging he was. We don't learn nearly as much about him as we do about her. Paul held a Fourth Degree black belt in judo and was a poet and photographer, but we learn none of that. However, we learn—and easily embrace—their shared genuine passion for celebrating life though fine food and wine, often expressed in nearly poetic passages. This is the art to which the title refers.

Karen Janes ( sic ) Woditsch and Craig Spidle are marvelous as Julia and Paul, and the video's close-ups really allow us to see their nuanced, utterly truthful facial expressions. The supporting cast is a who's who of top Chicago actors, among them Janet Ulrich Brooks, Jennie Affelder, Heidi Kettenring and Terry Hamilton each taking on several roles. Hamilton is especially charming and wry as master chef Max Bugnard, Julia's instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

The first rate video was produced and edited by Marty Higgenbotham with near-TV quality and clear audio. Composer Andrew Hansen has supplied wonderful musical underscoring, while the women's lovely period costumes are the work of Rachel Anne Healy.

Jonathan Abarbanel is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association


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