Never have I seen a show that fed my soul like Aubergine at Park Square Theatre. Please excuse the food-pun, but I really mean it. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I went to see the play, written by Julia Cho, but I was so surprised by the amount that the play affected me. It made me hungry, hungry to be with people I love.
Aubergine follows the character Ray, a Korean ex-chef taking care of his dying father. This leads to an unlikely friendship between him and his father’s nurse, rekindling things between him and his ex-girlfriend, meeting his uncle, and rethinking his relationship with food. This human-food relationship is one that is heavily explored in the play and how it always draws memories to the forefront of our minds. In the play, Ray is tasked by his uncle to make a stew that he believes will heal his dying brother. Ray doesn’t like this, as his father has never liked anything Ray has cooked, which has caused a rift between them.
Julia Cho’s writing in this play is superb. The way we were able to explore these characters is wonderful and never seemed boring or too much. The play goes back and forth between the main story and monologues by the characters describing the best meal they have ever eaten. This wonderful tale of grief, love, and family is one of Cho’s works and seeing this play makes me want to read them all.
What makes a wonderful book better are talented actors. And the performances in this work are some of the best I’ve seen this year in Minnesota theatre. The chemistry between the players and the delivery of the lines were all amazing, but where the actors really shined were the times they were alone and talking about their favorite meal. It was breathtaking storytelling.
The best example I can think of this is the beginning of Act Two, which took place in the lobby of the theatre. Sun Mee Chomet, who plays Cornelia, stood on a small stage and began to recount a story of the numerous refrigerators her mother kept in her childhood house. At first, it felt disconnected from the play, being in the lobby, that I thought that this was the actor telling us a true story from her childhood. It wasn’t until she mentioned a character’s name that I realized the second half of Aubergine had just started.. I was stunned. It takes an extremely talented actor to act like you’re “not-acting,” and Chomet nailed it.
Another stand out performance was the smaller role played by Shanan Custer. She opens the show with a monologue and then kind of just disappears for a little bit. Of course, she plays different roles here and there taking on different characters when needed. But the part of the show that really got me, and almost made me cry, was the ending. In Custer’s monologue, she tells the story of her favorite meal: a sandwich her father had made her character. The story continues with her father’s death and her longing to feel a connection with him again. At the end of the play, Ray went back to being a chef and started up his new restaurant, which has no menu. Cornelia assures the customer to trust the cook and wait. Custer’s character is served a sandwich, the same kind her father made. As she takes a bite, we see her memories with her father flash behind her (video designed by Kathy Maxwell). In that moment, the amount of emotion on Custer’s face moved me, thinking about my own life and memories.
Of course, I must mention our protagonist, Kurt Kwan, who played Ray. Ray is a difficult character, as he is not very likeable for much of the show. Eventually he comes around, his arch being completed by his own story of his father and his favorite meal. We see the full spectrum of grieving from Ray. Kwan truly wowed me, as his grief never seemed to be a caricature. He remained true in his storytelling and made sure he showed every side of humanity in his performance.
In short, this is one of my favorite plays of the season. It made me cry, it made me think, and it made me ponder about my favorite meal. Aubergine is truly a treat of a play. Or a full meal. Once again, please forgive the food pun.
Aubergine plays at Park Square Theatre until October 20th. You can get tickets here.