‘My Yiddishe Mama’ and Me: ‘Raging Skillet’ at New Jewish Theatre

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
You haven’t lived until you’ve celebrated the Passover Seder in a camper sitting on a pick-up truck parked at a truck stop. Well, it makes sense in a way. You only have to clean a very small space, you don’t have to get rid of all the non-Kosher food, and it IS a change of scene. But still, oy vey!

Sarajane Alverson in “Raging Skillet”
Photo by Eric Woolsey

When I’m going to review a play, I usually look for background material. Raging Skillet by Jacques Lamarre is based on a memoir by Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson). I found a used copy of the book, then as is also my habit, I didn’t read it. But I went to consult it today about a plot point that was troubling me, and I read the whole thing about her wild ride to the top of the food chain. Obviously every detail of a book cannot be fit into a 75-minute play, but focusing on experiences that limn Chef and her family replicates the fun of reading this unorthodox autobiography. Focusing most closely on the mother-daughter experience, the work is insightful and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

When audience members enter the theatre, we’re handed a napkin, as well as a program because there will be food. Chef has worked in restaurants, but the bulk of her jobs come through her catering company, the eponymous Raging Skillet. The audience is directed by signs indicating which section will get a sample of which dish. This is a clever idea, but it doesn’t work well. Interrupting the action for long enough to serve a large group is awkward and breaks up the flow. Also, as the show started the actors seemed stiff, and I was concerned that it was going to be a misfire overall, but not at all. Once the actors found their footing, maybe 10 minutes in, Raging Skillet became a delight.

We sit around a well-equipped, attractive kitchen with a projection screen on the wall and an aerie for a DJ above. The set design is by Dunsai Dai and the extremely effective sound and projections are by Michael B. Perkins. Everything is illuminated beautifully by Michael Sullivan. We’re told we’re attending a book signing for The Raging Skillet. Alverson is joined onstage by Erin Renee Roberts playing “Skillit,” which must translate as “everybody else mentioned throughout,” from the DJ to Chef’s father Marty, other family members, co-workers, friends and lovers. She’s the hardest working woman in show business here.

Erin Renee Roberts, Kathleen Sitzer Photo by Eric Woolsey

The two are quickly joined by Chef’s mother, Harriet (Kathleen Sitzer), which wouldn’t normally be strange, except this stereotypical Jewish mother has been dead for 25 years. Yet here she is, dressed in mismatched clothing (costume design by Michele Siler), complete with a lavender snood and tennis shoes, kvelling, kvetching, and otherwise raising all kinds of michegas for her exasperated daughter. They argue about, well, everything from names (the family name is Ross changed from Rosenthal then further altered by Chef to “Rossi” having dropped her first name), to Harriet’s infatuation with the microwave, to Chef’s lesbianism and Mom’s coupon fixation. And the cherry on top is that Sitzer is a scene stealer extraordinaire. I found myself watching her, even when she wasn’t directly involved in the action.

Lee Anne Mathews’ direction is a marvel of motion, precision, and impeccable timing. The play itself has an improvisatory quality, and by emphasizing that, Matthews brings out a breeziness it might otherwise lack. Stage Manager Emily Clinger is the wizard behind the (metaphorical) curtain.

If I talk too much about the plot, I’ll give away bits that should be little surprises, so I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Meanwhile, remember that everything cool began with the Fonz, there’s nothing like a group of Southern women in a plus-size clothing store who have just learned of Elvis’ death, and, in the end, there may be more to our parents than we ever really knew. Food is love, bitches, rock on!

Raging Skillet is at the NJT through Oct. 21. You may call 314-442-3283 or visit newjewishtheatre.org.  

NOTE: I know most of you don’t read the program (sigh) but should you in this case, the title page has left out Michael B. Perkins name (Michael Sullivan is credited twice). The next page does have the correct attributions. Also, make it a point to read the Director’s Note.

Kathleen Sitzer, Sarajane Alverson and Erin Renee Roberts in “Raging Skillet,” Photo by Eric Woolsey

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