Performing Arts

The kitchen is so real for Unicorn Theatre play that the actors have a safe word

Unicorn Theatre’s “How to Use a Knife” stars (onstage from left) Matt Rapport, J. Will Fritz, D’Andre McKenzie, Justin Barron and Damron Russel Armstrong. For the play, which takes place in a restaurant kitchen, the Unicorn built a working kitchen onstage. Cynthia Levin (left foreground) is the Unicorn’s producing director.
Unicorn Theatre’s “How to Use a Knife” stars (onstage from left) Matt Rapport, J. Will Fritz, D’Andre McKenzie, Justin Barron and Damron Russel Armstrong. For the play, which takes place in a restaurant kitchen, the Unicorn built a working kitchen onstage. Cynthia Levin (left foreground) is the Unicorn’s producing director. tljungblad@kcstar.com

When your set design is a working kitchen — fully plumbed, gas-fired and equipped with a magnetic strip holding sharp knives — it’s wise to take precautions.

Minor cuts and burns are an occupational hazard for chefs, which is why the actors performing in the Unicorn Theatre’s rolling world premiere of “How to Use a Knife” by playwright Will Snider have designated a “safe word.”

“It’s asparagus,” says Matt Rapport, who plays the main character, George. When members of a recent preview audience chuckle at such an obvious food reference, he adds, “The play doesn’t have the word ‘asparagus’ in it.”

George is a veteran chef who once worked in Michelin-starred restaurants but, like many people who work in the food industry, got caught in a tailspin of substance abuse. He winds up working in an unremarkable restaurant that serves burgers and steaks to workers in New York City’s Financial District.

For a chef with what Rapport calls “high-level chops,” it’s frustrating to bow to Michael (Brian Paulette), once George’s line cook and now the restaurant owner. George commands a crew that includes two “rowdy” Guatemalan line cooks: Carlos (Justin Barron), who frequently stands with his back to the audience while actually cooking, and Miguel (D’Andre McKenzie), who speaks almost exclusively in Spanish and shoulders the bulk of the chopping during the show.

There’s also Steve (Damron Russel Armstrong), an “eerily quiet” African dishwasher, Jack (J. Will Fritz), an entitled busboy/food runner who has been caught drinking on the job, and Kim (Carla Noack), an immigration investigator and the only woman in the cast.

The set — which features a Vulcan range with an industrial hood, refrigerators, stainless steel prep stations and a dishwashing station — allows the actors to really cook and plate meals while they are delivering dialogue designed to capture the trash-talking, expletive-laden slang of a professional kitchen.

And if anyone must slip “asparagus” into a line, there’s a first-aid kit built into the set. Just like you’d find in a working kitchen.

Navigating the intersection of nonstop action with lots of props and fast-paced dialogue has been a unique challenge.

“I’ve never directed a play that is so mathematical,” says director Sidonie Garrett.

If the action is suspended during rehearsal for a lost line, the actors and stage crew must reset the food (most real, but some fake). “Those steaks get expensive if they are real,” she adds.

Like many actors who scratch out a living by moonlighting in restaurants, Rapport spent much of his 20s working as a server and bartender. That experience gave him a familiarity with common kitchen lingo, including the role of “expeditor” — the person responsible for communicating and timing orders between the front (servers) and the back (cooks) of the house (the restaurant).

He also knew how to run “the pass,” a stainless steel counter where dishes are garnished, wiped down and inspected before the waitstaff serves them to diners.

But when it comes to sharp objects, stage actors typically work with swords or knives made of plastic or wood, not knives on loan from Ambrosi Brothers Cutlery Co. on Main Street. The company supplies and sharpens knives for professional chefs throughout Kansas City.

Professional kitchens lend themselves to drama, but Hollywood is learning that outfitting a cast in chef’s coats or aprons and handing them knives doesn’t necessarily make it feel real for viewers, which is why professional chefs are frequently hired as consultants. For instance, in “Chef,” Jon Favreau worked out with Los Angeles chef and food truck entrepreneur Roy Choi. In “Burnt,” Bradley Cooper was coached by Marcus Wareing, a Michelin-starred chef based in London.

Likewise, the Unicorn actors were coached in the fundamentals of knife technique by Greg Oliver, a chef who has worked in Kansas City and abroad and who currently manages the clubhouse at Lakewood Oaks in Lee’s Summit.

“Obviously, it’s a play and they emulate. It’s hard to acquire a skill that chefs develop over a lifetime, but I tried to give them some of the basics,” he says during a recent telephone interview.

Oliver’s wife is Sarah M. Oliver, a well-known costume designer who works with many theater companies in town and teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The couple lived in Okinawa, Japan, for several years. That’s where Oliver became immersed in the “world of fine cutlery” — or carbon-steel knives that are sharper and more finely crafted than many German steel knifes that are the current industry standard in the United States.

“The reality is that chefs, up until the last few years, have not been very aware of fine cutlery,” he says, most of which is forged by hand and can cost thousands of dollars.

Safety, rather than showiness, is key in “How to Sharpen a Knife.” Oliver should know: He nipped the tip of a finger off when he was 16.

“I never made that mistake again,” he says.

Coaching the actors included teaching them to hold a knife properly, using a pinch grip that chokes up on the blade for better control and curling fingers on the opposite hand like a claw, with thumb in. Hold low on the handle like a hammer and you’re likely to lose control.

In early rehearsals, the actors practiced basic push cuts and rock chops on mushrooms, cucumbers, potatoes and onions. Slow and steady was a mantra. There’s no need for speed: “I told them the key here is to go slow so you don’t cut yourself,” Oliver says. Walking with knives and verbally signaling to fellow actors when you’re walking past them with a knife was part of the training.

“As far as the cooking stuff, I have it pretty easy,” Rapport says. “The majority of the kitchen action of plating food is the line cooks’ jobs. My burden is more on the verbal end. There’s a whole section where I instruct a character on how to use and sharpen a knife.”

Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing director, says there are limits to creating reality on the stage: “We have to fake fry.”

A fryer filled with bubbling oil poses obvious dangers, so the fryer was installed but not plugged in, which means the french fries are actually “fingers” of foam. The onions and tomatoes on the prep table are fake, but the pickles are real because fake ones made noise when knocked together.

The actors must also project their lines above the bang of pots and pans ricocheting off of stainless steel, the sizzling of cooking food or the whoosh of running water.

“There will be smells and aromas as soon as people come through the door,” Levin concludes. “We recommend you eat before you come.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. She’s also a restaurant critic and Chow Town’s blog curator. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc and on Instagram at @chowtownkc.

Onstage

“How to Use a Knife” runs through Feb. 19 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. See UnicornTheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.

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