Sort-of sisters playing with fire (in the kitchen)

Posted: October 16, 2012

Mamma mia! Ladies, wazza-matta you? Ufff! Is this any way to behave in the kitchen? That flour's not for throwing. That ladle's not for bashing. And - yikes! - put down those guns!

Hey, waidaminit! Are you really ladies, ladies? Let alone sisters? I don't think so. It looks like the frumpy one who calls herself Delphine is a guy named Jay Falzone, and the one called Carmela who thinks she's super-sexy, she's really Stephen Smith.

Oops. I hope I haven't given anything away.

But you'd have to be from another planet not to see that Cooking With the Calamari Sisters is not just a spoof on food programs and public-access TV and Italian life and cuisine, but also a drag show. It has all the essentials - diva numbers that bring down the house, overarching imitations of women at the extreme edge of plausibility, and overdone getups.

Overdone is an accurate description of Cooking With the Calamari Sisters, which otherwise could not work at such a ripe level of silliness on the main stage of Society Hill Playhouse, which brings the show here after its two-year run in Rochester, N.Y. When Calamari is not bubbling over, so to speak, it is at its weakest, and that's not often.

But for the first 15 minutes of a two-act, 21/2-hour show that gets wilder as it progresses, Calamari is not even on simmer. This is when Carmela and Delphine sing what seems like a very long "Mambo Italiano" and set the stage, clunkily, with the sort of mugging and hamming you might associate with a church-basement production. If at some point you begin to think, What am I doing here?, you fall into the category of a normal person.

Then the curtain opens to reveal a huge, yucky-green kitchen with a 60-year-old sensibility (the set is credited to "Biff Calamari"), and Calamari suddenly is hot and ready to serve. The actors, who created the show with Dan Lavender, are constantly at odds in their sisterly roles, as they take us through the stages of making a traditional meal - their preparation of cannoli for dessert is one of the funniest parts of the evening, borrowing heavily from a long-ago Lucille Ball scene in a bakery and just as well done.

In fact, much of it is funny - laugh-out-loud funny, not just amusing, and I'll write no more than this: Calamari boosts the laff-meter by using the audience skillfully, and those ticketholders chosen during the show to help are not embarrassed by doing so.

That's because the two sisters themselves hold the distinction of always being the worst off, as they mug through an evening with equal doses of acrimony, egotism, old-fashioned charm, Italian verve, and - almost coincidentally - cooking ideas. The characters are tireless and, it follows, so are the actors playing these zany cooks.

What else can you say but mangia!


Cooking With the Calamari Sisters

Through Nov. 4 at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St. Tickets: $45. Information: 215-923-0210 or www.comcasttix.com.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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