Aubergine at the Berkeley Rep’s new Peet’s Theatre

auslide1Aubergine, which opened at the Rep this evening, is a sweet and savory meditation on food, death, and family.  A young man named Ray (Tim Kang) has to confront the imminent death of his father (Sab Shimono).  Referred home from the hospital for hospice care, the father lies on his deathbed and only groans occasionally.  Ray’s mother died long ago.  

The only other family member is his uncle, his father’s older brother (Joseph Steven Yang), who lives in Korea.  With the help of his girlfriend, Cornelia (Jennifer Lim), who is bilingual English/Korean, Ray manages to contact the brother and tell him the news.

The brother arrives from Korea and convinces Ray to cook a last meal of turtle soup for his dad, even though his dad is unable to eat or even drink water.  There are genuinely funny scenes where Ray, who speaks no Korean, converses with the uncle, who speaks no English. There are flashbacks and meditative dialogues about food and death and the bonds and tensions between parents and children.  At the end, Ray takes his dad’s ashes back to Korea, then returns home and opens a restaurant.  

It’s a small, intimate cast with a minimum of action.  The Rep’s spiffy renovated thrust stage, reborn as the Peet’s Theatre, and the new Meyer sound system provide excellent visibility and audio even up in the nosebleed section.  The new seats are very comfortable.  As usual, the Rep’s stage set features minor miracles of changing scenery, although the death scene blackout is a bit melodramatic.  The acting throughout is at a high level.  The audience was very pleased and greeted the curtain call with a standing ovation.

However, there were some things that did not work for me in the script.  Item:  In an opening monologue, a character (Safiya Fredericks) who is unrelated to the rest of the action, and who describes herself as an extreme gourmet, recounts a late night at home when the smell of frying butter woke her up and she found her father making a hot pastrami sandwich.  She says it was the most delicious dish she ever tasted, even though it had “only two ingredients, meat and bread.”  Hello?  She forgot the third ingredient whose fragrance drew her to the dish, the butter. No gourmet would forget butter. It’s a small oversight but right at the outset it undermines the credibility of the script and of the character who has to voice it.

Item:  Ray, seconded by his uncle, describes his dad as the ultimate bad food eater.  He had no sense of taste.  He hated good restaurants and even considered a Big Mac too pretentious.  We hear extensive descriptions of what a poor eater he was all of his life.  Yet Ray says that his dad always weighed his food with a scale.  That makes no sense.  Junk food eaters don’t weigh their food. It doesn’t work.

I also had trouble with the business of Ray, who is presented as a great chef, preparing a dish of Korean turtle soup for his dad. There’s a completely unnecessary riff on slaughtering a turtle (it had the audience on the verge of protest). It could just as well have been chicken soup instead of turtle soup.  And the trouble taken to prepare this very fancy dish for a man who hated fancy dishes struck me as borderline contemptuous of the dying man. A simpler dish would have been kinder to the father and to aquatic wildlife, especially since the father was too ill to eat, in any case.  

There are several threads of dialogue and monologue about the tensions between parents and children. These don’t break new ground.  Apart from a few very brief flashback scenes between Ray and his father, these meditations are just talk.  The early scene between Ray and his girlfriend, where she almost walks out on him, has sparkle and wit, but most of their later conversations lack depth and interest.  

The death of a parent is an experience that resonated with many people of a certain age in the audience. The hospice nurse (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) is a fount of experience and wisdom for Ray, teaching him much about how death may occur and how one can handle it. The nurse’s role struck me as very well written.  But the script’s effort to show that the experience of witnessing his father’s death has somehow penetrated Ray’s emotional firewall fails, to my mind.  It all hangs on Ray’s speech to an audience of zero at the memorial service. (That’s another script glitch, because the hospice nurse had promised to be present).  The speech is just too talky and too late to serve as catharsis.  Ray, the main character, remains emotionally inert except about the knives that are the tools of his trade. There’s no convincing scene here showing Ray coming to any kind of emotional bond with his Dad, even in death.  There’s not much of an arc here to give the whole structure coherence.

Ray’s central insight, he says in his memorial speech, is that we are all dead, or partly dead. This cryptic line could be the start of some deeper reflections along various lines (Sophocles? Freud? Sartre? Zombies?), but the script doesn’t give Ray anything to work with. He simply jumps to the conclusion that “therefore” we need to live each day to the fullest. Carpe diem. Quite true, but this wisdom is won too easily, like a Hallmark card message.   

Food, death, and family are a good mix for a stage drama.  Quite a few films have explored similar ingredients.  Quality acting and stagecraft make Aubergine a pleasant enough stew, but it could use a bit more sifting and a great deal more sizzle.  

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