Food, Glorious Food
A feast of a conversation with Catherine Wolf, producer of Tasting Memories.
Given that The Innocents takes place in the 19th century in a drawing room of an old country house in England, a corset was a must for refined ladies of those days. "I kept screaming, 'I can't! I can't do it!'" Wolf recalls, her voice still displaying the anguish she felt that day -- for if you can't get into your corset, you won't be getting into your dress, either. "Finally," she says, "they got this enormous cape and put it over my shoulders, and I had to do the entire show in it."
You'd think that with a scenario like that, Wolf would be gun shy in matters relating to food. But the incident hasn't stopped her from producing Tasting Memories, a food-related revue at her Colleagues Theatre Company. It's a troupe that Wolf conceived in 1995 while standing by for Rosemary Harris in An Inspector Calls. Says the diminutive, attractive woman, "I was once again reminded that a woman of a certain age who's not a star is going to have difficulty getting cast, so I decided to start a company. If I knew it would be this hard...," she moans as if she'd just overeaten another memorable meal.
For Tasting Memories, Michael Fischetti and Emily Mitchell have compiled songs and sketches to form a theatrical five-course meal. They chose pieces by talents as disparate as Ernest Hemingway, Colette, and Irving Berlin. Adds Wolf, "Ruth Reichl, food critic of the Times, gave us something, too. And William Bolcom contributed a song called 'Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,' based on the items he used to be offered when he played various ladies' clubs across the country."
Delivering the material will be a rotating cast of stars that includes Philip Bosco, Alvin Epstein, Tammy Grimes, Rosemary Harris, and Kitty Carlisle Hart. Says Wolf, "I told Rosemary, 'You're going to have a song,' and she said, 'Oh, dahling, I can't sing.' But when I told her that she only had to speak it, she said, 'Oh, then that's all right." This is the type of cooperation that has helped Colleagues to offer Max Frisch's The Firebugs with Laurence Luckinbill; Wit & Wisdom with Sandy Duncan, Joan Copeland, and Dina Merrill; William Gibson's Handy Dandy with Helen Gallagher; and The Madwoman of Chaillot with Kim Hunter, Anne Jackson, and Alvin Epstein.
When Wolf decided to do Madwoman, she immediately thought that Epstein would be ideal for the role of the Ragpicker. But would an actor of his stature say yes to her? After all, this was the man whose name is forever etched into theater history books as the original Lucky in the legendary 1956 production of Waiting for Godot. Wolf called, left a message, and Epstein returned it -- from Boston. "I'll do it if you can get me a place to stay in New York," he told her.
That was tempting, but Wolf's budget isn't such that she can call a midtown hotel and pay its exorbitant rates. Domingo Rodriguez, her costume designer, did offer a room in his big house in Brooklyn. Would Epstein accept that or would he pull an I-want-a-suite snit? Well, he accepted the offer to help the Colleagues. "And when I entered the room in which I was to stay," Epstein says, "I was shocked to see on the wall a poster from The Passion of Josef D. and another of From A to Z -- two shows that I'd done. Then I realized that my host had worked on the costumes for those shows. We reminisced for the rest of the night."
In Tasting Memories, Epstein will sing an aria from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny -- no surprise given that he's a noted Kurt Weill interpreter, what with all those evenings he did with Martha Schlamme and his appearance in the 1989 revival of The Threepenny Opera as Mr. Peachum. (What a shame that he can't do something from No Strings, the 1962 Richard Rodgers musical in which he played a featured role. But until someone can find a way to put "Eager Beaver" on a menu, there's nothing from that show that would be food-appropriate. While I'm fantasizing, shouldn't Wolf include the jingle from that chocolate concoction that baby boomers put in their milk through much of the early '50s? "I love Bosco, it's rich and chocolate-y. Chocolate-flavored Bosco is mighty good for me" would seem to be a natural for Philip Bosco.)
Epstein has been helpful to Wolf in another way: He told her about Le Fin du Jour (The End of the Day), the 1939 French film that takes place in an old actors' home. "I immediately thought that it would fit another part of our mission," says Wolf, "for we don't want properties in which mature actors appear on the periphery but ones in which they are center stage. So we watched this movie, thought it was the funniest thing, and now we're hoping to get a translation and adaptation made for the stage. It's taken me six months just to get to the right person in France but maybe we'll wind up doing it in the future."
Of course, Wolf has often found that securing rights can pose a problem. "We wanted to include a piece by Ludwig Bemelmans," she says, "but the estate gave us an outright no. Then someone else who shall remain nameless wanted $2,500 for us to use a poem. I told them that we're charging all of $19 per ticket and we have a 99-seat house. I said, 'If we go forward with this project, we'll give you the right amount later on, but as of now, we can't even pay $2,500 for complete plays.'" (That hasn't stooped the company from presenting the American premiere of Angela Huth's The Understanding and the world premieres of George Bamford's Irish Strawberries and Gary Richards' Second Summer.)
Alas, the unnamed person was unmoved and the verse won't be among the memories tasted. "Yet we got the Ernest Hemingway piece without a problem," says Wolf. "I hope we can eventually get Le Fin du Jour, for what a play it would make," she says, closing her eyes and savoring the thought as if she could taste it as plainly as that heavenly meal she had in Boston 28 years ago.