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 WoolseyWhen 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 WoolseyThe 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

Ben Nordstrom and Kari Ely will play opposite one another in “Into the Breeches!,” the headlining production of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ new program titled, In the Works, set for Oct. 28 through Nov. 24, at the Grandel Theatre. Written by George Brant and directed by Nancy Bell, the month-long, ticketed production is the culmination of the Festival’s 2018 season.
Kari ElyIn addition to “Into the Breeches!,” In the Works will include a Saturday matinee family show, “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness,” inspired by the mistaken identity hijinks of “The Comedy of Errors” and written by Bell. Also included are two staged readings of “The Thousand Natural Shocks” by playwright Michael Sáenz. Deep-dive talkbacks and art-making workshops for kids will round out the events.
For a detailed In the Works schedule and to order tickets, please visit www.sfstl.com/in-the-works, or call Metrotix at 314-534-1111. Student tickets to all performances are free with an ID but it is recommended they be reserved in advance. A limited number of “Pay What You Can Nights” are scheduled for the “Breeches!” performances on Nov. 7 and 14 and should also be reserved in advance. Military discounts are available as well.
Ben Nordstrom“One of the things that excited me most about joining the Festival was knowing that it already had plans to make this foray into producing new work alongside the classics of Shakespeare,” said Tom Ridgely, executive producer of the Festival. “These plays each capture something beautifully distinct about our current American moment. Like Shakespeare, they show us ourselves, in a way we’ve never seen before, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to share them with St. Louis.”
“Into the Breeches!” is a comedy about a fictitious theater group. It’s 1942, and with the men away at war, the director’s wife sets out to produce an all-female version of “Henry V.” She assembles an unexpected cast that showcases how art and comedy can come together in even the darkest times. The play had its critically-acclaimed world premiere in January 2018 at the Tony-winning Trinity Repertory Company. This will be its first production in St. Louis. There will be 16 performances of “Breeches!” throughout the month-long run. Brant, the play’s author, also wrote “Grounded,” which starred Anne Hathaway during its New York run.
Nordstrom, whose work includes numerous appearances at the Repertory Theatre, the Muny, New Jewish, Stages, among others, also appeared in two plays written by Bell on behalf of the Festival, and in collaboration with the St. Louis Symphony in 2016. Ely, who previously appeared in the Festival’s main stage productions of “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” has worked for virtually every professional theater company in St. Louis. In addition to Nordstrom and Ely, the “Breeches!” cast will include Gary Wayne Barker, Michelle Hand, Katy Keating, Mary McNulty, Laura Resinger and Jacqueline Thompson.
Gary Wayne Baker will direct the family play,  “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness,” Bell’s story of resilience, identity and family. Cast members include Erika Flowers, Karl Hawkins, Michael James Reed and Jen Sinnen. “Outrageous” matinee performances are scheduled at 4 p.m. on Saturdays (Nov. 10, 17, 24).
“The Thousand Natural Shocks” tells the story of a high school student who explores his identity through experiences at a private military academy. The title character is encouraged and challenged by his role in the school’s production of “Hamlet.” Sáenz was commissioned by the Festival to adapt the story from his book of the same title. The story draws inspiration from the It Gets Better Project, which leads a global movement to empower LGBTQ youth worldwide. Webster Conservatory alumnus Kern McFadden will direct.  Two staged readings are scheduled at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 7-8.
Set designers Margery and Peter Spack and costume designer Michele Siler will serve as creative team members for both “Into the Breeches!” and “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness.”
Generous support for In the Works is provided by Mont and Karen Levy. Student tickets for 18 and under are free thanks to support from PNC Arts Alive.
About Playwright George Brant:
George BrantGeorge Brant was born in Park Ridge, Illinois and studied acting at Northwestern before turning to writing for his own zeppo theater company in Chicago during the ‘90s. He now lives in Cleveland with his wife, Laura Kepley, the Artistic Director of Cleveland Play House.

His 2012 play, Grounded, about a female fighter pilot reassigned to the Air Force’s drone unit, played New York’s Public Theater in a production starring Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and directed by Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner Julie Taymor. That production won three Lortel Awards for excellence Off-Broadway and has gone on to over 125 productions in 18 countries and a dozen different languages.
Still when Into the Breeches! premiered earlier this year at the Tony-winning Trinity Rep in Rhode Island, the Providence Journal called it, out of Brant’s 20-plus plays, “his best work by far” and “a gem of a play, one of the sweetest nights of theater you’re likely to see”.
The Shakespeare Festival is proud to present the Midwest premiere of this charming, big-hearted and provocative new play by one of America’s most acclaimed and original new voices.

About Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Since its inception in 2001, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has surpassed the one million mark in attendance through its work In the Schools, In the Streets and In the Park with more than 800,00 people attending the free main stage productions at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. The organization has reached an additional 300,000 students In the Schools through its educational programming. In 2010, the Festival launched SHAKE 38, a marathon participatory presentation of Shakespeare’s entire 38-play canon community wide. In 2012, the Festival shut down its first street, Cherokee, to present a community-based play In the Streets. Leadership support for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ 2018 season is provided by the Whitaker Foundation. The Festival is also funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis. For more information, please visit www.sfstl.com, or call 314-531-9800.