Brilliant theater can be made from simple ingredients: a bare white room, a large sheet of paper, a magic marker, and a poised, fearless woman who knows how to tell a story.
Orietta Crispino is such a woman. Let Me Cook For You, a trilogy she’s been incubating for years, before and during the pandemic, is finally unfolding in all its glory in Hell’s Kitchen. Assisted by a basket of vegetables and plenty of space to unpack her favorite garments, Crispino explores her lifelong obsession with beauty — inherited, she tells us, from her dead mother.
Coming off a stretch of frequent, frenzied trips to Broadway and Lincoln Center, I was relieved to take the elevator to Theaterlab’s third-floor space, near Ninth Avenue in the city’s garment district, and to find myself among just a handful of fellow audience members (the maximum for each performance is 15). The organizers — pleasant women dressed, like Crispino, in black — checked my fresh Covid test, directed me to a coatrack, and ushered me into a white gallery space. In the program these women are labeled officiants, and the entire 150-minute experience does have the feel of a service or a ceremony; by the end, I found myself quite transformed.
Italian-born, Crispino is more than just the playwright and performer of Let Me Cook For You. Raised in Milan and Rome, trained in acting and directing at the school of the famed Piccolo Teatro de Milano, she arrived in New York for a short visit in 1997 and never left, taking over the direction of Theaterlab in 2006. In 2013, she moved the nonprofit operation into its current loft space, around the corner from Stile’s Farmers Market, an unassuming produce store that also stocks other ingredients for fixing an Italian meal and where, clearly, she shops in preparation for each performance.
Not a native speaker of English, she takes pains to be sure we are clear about key aspects of her narrative. “This is not about the past,” she writes on a wall poster. “It is about reading the signs of the present. This is a way to pierce into the future together.”
While sharing the fraught tale of her bungled birth and her mother’s attempts at suicide, she pulls out a camp stove and a wok, crushes some garlic, and sets to work chopping celery, zucchini, bright-red peppers, and yellow squash. At each performance, in addition to telling parts of her life’s story and inscribing keywords and concepts onto the wall, Crispino cooks and serves a meal, a light repast of those spring vegetables and marinated tofu, sauteed in olive oil and ladled over domes of rice. She provides cloth napkins, natch, and china plates and metal forks, with glassware for wine and Pellegrino.
The story she tells includes “inherited myths and apocryphal histories.” Growing up with a psychologically fragile mother, in a mostly female, multi-generational household, she learns to assess the needs of others. Her mother was a skilled beautician, and Crispino seems to have internalized that skill set — manicures, facials, massage, waxing — along with her theatrical education. “We did not share the same aesthetic,” she says of her mother. “We had very different taste — but — we shared the same desire. And desire can never be fulfilled.” She never meets her father, and her fruitless efforts to find him during a high school trip to Rome drive parts of her narrative. “I WAS OK WITH HIM BEING DEAD. I talked to him all the time, it didn’t feel like he abandoned me.”
All of this takes barely an hour, including the eating, followed by a brief intermission during which Crispino and the audience relocate to the other end of the loft, a big white room with rows of seats for the small group of spectators. In Act Two, she shares another aspect of her obsession with beauty: a wardrobe studded with vintage Italian couture. Both her own designer clothes and pieces inherited from her mother fill crates, boxes, and cabinets; her handbag collection hangs on the wall. She declares that the huge quantity on display is but a third of her wardrobe, most of which came from her mother and from friends. Titled This Will Look Good on You, the second section was workshopped in this space during the pandemic — what looks random and casual is actually carefully constructed and scripted. We hear a recording of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Crispino’s favorite opera, as she reminisces about experiencing it from two-dollar seats at La Scala.
She tries things on; before long she’s parading around in two different high-heeled shoes, one actually a boot, and suddenly I see, as if for the first time, what walking in heels does to a woman’s body, thrusting the hips forward so she exudes a confident sexuality. The meandering dressing-room display morphs, becomes a bit crazier, with layers, decades of clothing piled onto her body in what should be chaos but emerges as a strong and beautiful vision. Purses emerge out of other purses, silk stockings and garter belts out of battered white storage boxes. She hangs unlikely objects on her body: a small ironing board, a red Italian coffeepot. And she recites in Italian a long speech of Prospero’s, about magic and release, from The Tempest, which her favorite director, Giorgio Strehler, staged “using meters and meters of blue silk.” It is in its way a call for applause, and she gets it.
For the concluding act of her trilogy, we spectators are ushered back to the original gallery, where it is now pitch black. We sit, listening to Crispino’s voice amplified in the darkness, finishing some of her earlier stories, describing the churches of Rome, their architecture, and the sculptures they hold. Then the lights slowly come up, revealing a spread of Colomba cake (an Italian Easter delicacy shaped like a dove) and fortified wine awaiting us on the counter. Her gracious presence bids us goodnight.
Nothing is wasted: not a word, not a gesture, not a scrap of paper. The posters Crispino creates on the walls in the first act have, by the time we’re ready to leave, been recycled into covers for small albums — full of souvenir cards of saints and Roman churches, a childhood photo of Crispino herself, a map of Italy marked with key locations, translations of her Italian speeches, and straightforward program notes — that are handed to us at the door.
If you love clothes, if you like to eat, if you’re curious about the lives of others, this might be the show of the season for you. Enthusiasm for the Italian language and its culture, history, and architecture won’t hurt. What you’ll find at Theaterlab is an oasis, time to focus on one person, one place, one story. You come away calmer and richer than when you arrived, plied with gifts of food and information, dazzled by a very talented artist and her smoothly functioning crew. For almost three hours, I realize as I wander out into the soft May night, I have not touched my phone. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.