by Andrew Juhl
Amana - The Kitchen Witches revolves around Dolly Biddle and Isabelle Lomax, rival cable-access cooking show hostesses who’ve hated each other for over 30 years, ever since Larry Biddle dated Isabelle... but married Dolly. After an unpleasant confrontation puts them together in front of a live audience, however, the network decides to give them their own combined cooking show called “The Kitchen Witches.” Dolly's long-suffering TV producer and son, Stephen Biddle, does everything he can to keep the dueling twosome on track, but it proves to be an exercise in futility as the Dolly and Isabelle continue to whip up more insults (and ratings) than they do recipes.
Caroline Smith’s The Kitchen Witches is also a bit frustrating. The winner of the 2005 Samuel French Canadian Play Contest, the play itself has an interesting premise that doesn’t always live up to its promise—but nevertheless keeps the audience aroused and engaged throughout.
As expected, Meg Merckens, a co-founder of the Iowa Theatre Artists Company, turns in yet another stellar performance, this time as Isabelle. The weightier role of the two female leads, Merckens does great character work in this play, adding slight and subtle flourishes that round-out what, in the hands of a less-experienced actress, could easily be a two-dimensional role.
Accomplished vocalist Lynne Rothrock is enjoyable as Dolly. I wasn’t so sure I would be able to tolerate Dolly’s alter ego “Babcha” for an entire play, but thankfully her moose-and-squirrel Russian accent goes the way of the dodo very early. Rothrock’s unhurried, stentorian delivery betrays her obvious comfortableness on the stage, and her voluptuous figure visually offsets Merckens’ Isabelle, allowing for the exchange of some truly great invectives.
In the third of the three major roles, Eddie Skaggs performs serviceably as Stephen Biddle. Despite the plot, on which Stephen’s character is integral, the actual role is underwritten compared to the two females, and therefore not nearly as memorable. Had Skaggs overplayed it, it would have been annoying. As-is, he plays it mostly straight; a good personal and directorial choice, and the play was much better for it.
Despite the award-winning script, however, there are some basic problems with the actual play that I’m not entirely sure could have been overcome by the actresses. There some truly great jibes, as well as the inevitable food fight, but the combined physical and written comedy never pulls the play above the plains of forced laughter and into realm of genuine, organic comedy. Additionally and unfortunately, I easily recognized that more than a soupcon of the jokes in this play—culinary or otherwise—were entirely unoriginal. One particularly grating offense came in the form of a dozens-style “yo-mamma” joke that wasn’t even novel when I first heard Jamie Foxx tell it on In Living Color during the early 90s.
Overall though, I would highly endorse viewing this production. Director Thomas P. Johnson and his company do a fantastic job of incorporating and charming the audience, and the ITAC venue is, as ever, a cozy and intimate theatre. The show continues through November 6th.