Living in Chicago in the midst of groups of friends working in the theater and restaurant industries, I’ve been fortunate to come across many opportunities over the years that have enabled me to enjoy some of the best nights out I could hope for. Keeping abreast of the trends in both is not an easy task, nor is it something that I can always indulge in, as a good meal or night at the theater is difficult to indulge in on a regular basis without breaking the bank of this working stiff.

It’s more of a special occasion thing- something to savor. When we go out to dinner, actually go OUT, I want to make sure it’s something that is meaningful and fulfilling, and that the experience is something that justifies making the effort to provide maximum enjoyment and value. If we’re out to dinner or at a show, the last thing I want to do is spend the money that I earn on an event  that I leave feeling unsatiated.

There are hosts of dinners and dates over the past few years that have been recalled as successes. Since I’ve returned to Chicago, the game has been stepped up. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of meals cooked together with friends, had evenings where we made homemade pasta as an activity, and explored Farmer’s Markets with family, making a summertime feast. The dinners out that we have shared have been documented and memorable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy evenings at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass thanks to our connection to those in the business of theater.

This past weekend was the opening night for Lookingglass’ show “Cascabel” at the Water Tower Works in downtown Chicago. I had been hearing about it for months, and was more than excited to go. A collaboration between Lookingglass and James Beard Award winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill,  the show was billed as an ‘unforgettable theatrical adventure [including a] sumptuous gourmet Mexican feast, world-class circus acts, and a tantalizing love story.’ 

I’ve been to Frontera, and I’ve done his other upscale restaurant, Topolobampo, and while I have enjoyed them, selling Mexican food as fine dining has always been a head scratcher to me. Comfort food? Yes. Fine dining? It remains to be seen. Much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been more about flavors that blend with the help of time, rather than your typical French-influenced fare that is finished a la minute. It is within the structure of what we have been fed as diners that we expect quick-fired service and five minute flavors that pop when they hit your palate.

From conception to execution, Rick Bayless made it implicitly clear that it didn’t have to be that way.

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We arrived at the theater and milled about in the lobby. As we met with other excited theatergoers, we were greeted by costumed servers offering margaritas. As expected, the margaritas that we received were not your garden variety TGI Friday’s blender drinks. These were Rick Bayless margaritas. Uniformed waitstaff circled through the crowd holding trays of tiny spoonfuls of green chili guacamole with king crab, and a liquified queso fundido looking like a poached egg atop a sauce spiced with the flavors of chorizo.

When it was time, we made our way to the seats in the balcony, giving us a view of the stage and main floor. The central action of the play took place in the kitchen and dining room of a  Mexican boarding house. Bayless was there, back to the audience and moving deliberately between his prep table and stove, preparing dishes that would become themselves sensory plot driving characters in the story. At our tiny two person table, we had a bamboo plate with a green leaf package with popcorn spilling out the sides and a note that instructed us to be patient and wait until instructed to open.

Hm. Okay. Surely nobody minded if we nibbled a bit at the popcorn.

The set-up for the show seemed simple enough, and left all the performers to do what they did best. It was light on acting, heavy on performance, specifically that of the circus-arts variety. Tony Hernandez, an Artistic Associate with Lookingglass and Las Vegas based performer, conceptualized an evening of individual acts of daring acrobatics, contortionism, and quick change artistry interspersed with a show that awakened the senses and passions of performers and audiences alike.

As the house lights dimmed and the show began, Bayless was hard at work as the new cook in the kitchen, plating a dish that looked similar to what we had been poking and sniffing for the better part of 30 minutes before the show began.  We enjoyed appetizers of pork belly, grilled zucchini and huitlacoche on burnt toast, along with small wafers with jellied stars made from beets with whipped cream cheese and mushroom, explained to us as “from the cook, and he apologizes for burning the toast. The red item in front of you is not cherry jello, but it’s really good. You’ll like it. ”

The characters began to filter onto the set, and took their places at the table. Like any other family or close knit group of people, there was the usual bickering.  As the food was served, the maitre’d and de facto emcee for the evening introduced himself to the audience with a bit of banter, and invited us to open the presents in front of us, but not to taste immediately. He gave us an embellishedthree count, upon which we were instructed to deeply inhale the aroma of a pristine tuna ceviche. It was unique and a way to get us more in tune with all of our senses as the show went on. We were then instructed to take a bite.

As his overt silliness and the action of what was happening onstage faded into the background, there was a break in the action as everyone both onstage and off enjoyed the first course. I noticed that it possessed more balance than a homemade ceviche, and was much more delicate than the shrimp ceviche I had made two days previous in a bout of inspiration upon securing the tickets. There was sweetness from the passionfruit, and the flavors on the plate had been inactively blending and cooking in front of us the entire time we were sitting there engrossed in the show.

Over glasses of wine that we sipped as the action resumed, we saw two characters overcome with the flavors and passion of the dish itself, and the scene took flight as the tiny actress playing the daughter grabbed ahold of the chandelier and was lofted to the ceiling of the theater where she and her partner performed a trapeze act both impressive and unmistakeably seductive. I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but it might have been when her flowing dress was ripped off to reveal a pair of polka dotted bloomers, much better suited for a high-flying act.

As the show continued, the wine and beer flowed, and a few more circus acts followed. Hernandez, a high wire performer, utilized a clothesline hanging in the corner of the theater as a tightrope, removing his sweaty clothing from a night in the kitchen and changing into a new outfit, one hanging on the line, complete with suspenders and a button-up shirt. A tiny young woman just passing through the boarding house for the night, after eating the food, took to the bath, wherein she performed a balancing act of contortion and hand-standery. An act like this defies description, but in awe of both her physical strength and how sensual she was able to make her performance, the audience was left with their mouths agape, salivating for what came next.

It was at this point in the show where we got the backstory that we were looking for. The proprietress of the boarding house, having mourned over a romance lost many years ago of a cook whose food instilled in her the sustaining passion of life, had not eaten a bite since. It showed. The actress who played her was a Spanish Olive Oyl who was nothing more than a string bean, lithe and limber. As the everpresent classical Spanish guitarist on stage strummed, she sang a mournful song from a second story balcony. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook was preparing a dish that brought back a feeling in her soul long since forgotten. As she sang and mourned, the smell of chiles and searing meat permeated the air that was already thick with lingering aromas and pheromones.

It’s to the credit of Bayless that he plays off of the senses of the audience while they sit, eat, and watch the show. He’s not onstage to wax poetic in a monologue, but in the conception of the show, he is always onstage and comfortable in his movements, and he is as equal a player in the show as those who flip and fly through the scenery. He knows where to add the right ingredient to the mix to evoke reminiscences of memorable meals or feelings, and as a natural in the kitchen, going about his business with such precision, he does not draw too much focus away from the spectacle of the evening’s events. It’s a truly rare glimpse that you get as a viewer, seeing someone so skilled at work, yet with all else going on, you’d almost never know he was there.

As Bayless cooks, the you get a real-time update of how things come together. You may think you smell the sesame seeds toasting, and get a whiff of that sauce coming together. As you smell it, so does the proprietress, who recognizes the smell as the mole poblano that her long lost love made so many years before. In addition to the audience participation as goaded by the maitre’d and the actors playing the gardener and his wife whose talents can best be described as “Mouth-Banana juggling”, the line between viewer and active storyline participant is all but erased thanks to the sense of smell.

When the dish came to the table, we inhaled again as Bayless, the cook, begged and pleaded with the Señora to take a bite. Although we were engrossed in what was happening onstage, it didn’t look like many people wanted to wait for her. We took our first bites, and it was revelatory. Everything that we had smelled was there. Sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, the beef, the chiles, all of the spices, and the smooth chocolate that gave the sauce a satin texture. A few minutes before, we watched him chop a bunch of black kale, and tucked underneath our beef tenderloin was a little pile of braised black kale. We all knew and could clearly see that he wasn’t cooking our food directly. We might have just forgotten that there was a kitchen in the back making all of our food. If we can see it, we know it’s happening.

As we ate, we saw yet another amazing duo of gymnasts, who performed a routine of flips, handstands, drops, and the female standing on her partner’s head. Yep. Right on that dude’s head. Yow. This reminds me of another great thing about this show-the pacing and plot points are spread out so you rarely have food in your mouth when it falls open in utter disbelief. Which it does. Quite often.

As the story progressed, the proprietress finally ate something and got a torrid case of happy feet, leaping to the center of the stage and giving a feverish flamenco dance atop the table. Flourishes and Dervishes never had it so good. Let it be known that if you want to convey passion with a distinctive Spanish/Mexican influence, get someone who’s really good at Flamenco. That’ll do.

The story was resolved! She ate! Her passion for food, life, and love, it was rekindled! As the theater celebrated with Oaxacan chocolate cake with a blood orange espuma and giant pastel communion wafers, we were entertained once again by the gardener and his wife, who in addition to juggling bananas with their mouths were also quick change artists, yet another unexpected and unique talent to add to the ever-growing list of new experiences for most of the audience. The gardener’s wife went through about three different changes, and the gentleman even got one stunning reveal of his own.

The show wrapped up quickly, with the cast dancing their way into the night and the audience left to finish their drinks and enjoy the tipsy company of a hundred other satisfied diners and theater patrons. Normally, a banner event like this wouldn’t be my scene, but for those who dine out and enjoy the theater on a regular basis, the ticket price, that of a hearty night out at any number of Chicago’s finer restaurants, is not overvalued. For a night of first class food and entertainment, it proves like the silken molé that blanketed my steak that a slow-cooked mixture of ingredients yields the most flavorful of results.

With Lookingglass Marketing Director Erik Schroeder and Chef Rick Bayless

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