‘Aubergine’ Proves to be Poignant Blend of Flavors

February 13, 2019
Still from “Aubergine” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

There is a poignant blend of flavors when you mix Korean-American theatre with a religiously observant Jewish director. Todd Salovey’s latest production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre gives us a powerful insight into an East-West culture while taking us on a culinary journey through food and death. It might be set in a Korean family, but the themes are universal.

Brian Kim plays Ray, a disillusioned chef who is tending to his dying father, a patriarch who never fully expressed love or approval. Audrey Park is Cornelia, Ray’s former and now-reunited girlfriend who has a hip American edge but is the only one of them who speaks Korean and can provide a gateway to their heritage, by translating with Ray’s Korean-speaking uncle (Young Kim).

The play is sensitive and moving and during an audience feedback session Salovey explained the theme in the typically Jewish form of a question: “What is the best meal you have ever eaten?”This was the first question he asked actors when rehearsals began, and it is the question asked to audiences.

Julia Cho’s play is interesting. The dramatic action is tragi-comic, and a funny highlight is when Ray is frustrated with his uncle and speaks at him in angry English while his girlfriend Cornelia translates into Korean so the uncle can understand. Justin Humphries’ brilliant scenic design projects subtitle onto the backdrop so that we can see the simultaneous translation and appreciate that Cornelia is taking Ray’s insults and diplomatically translating them into a calm, flattering Korean that communicates his point while building a loving connection with his uncle.

The circular stage, set amid a square of broken slate, almost resembles a dining plate at an Asian fusion restaurant, and the father’s deathbed at the center of the stage eventually becomes the dining table where the family sits, albeit with the cremated ashes poignantly placed in a wooden box at the front.

Cho’s writing moves between epithets that could be from King Solomon’s book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, like “we hold the hands of the dying but we are not the ones holding their hands…they are holding ours.” When Ray provides a less eloquent outburst, he says “I’m sorry for swearing…I am a chef,” which led my mind immediately to the English chef Gordon Ramsay.

At times the play moves between traditional western theatre and the mid-20th-century style of Berthold Brecht, as the action is broken with a somewhat self-conscious commentary. All characters step out to give direct monologues to the audience before moving back into the narrative of the play, and, although I would have preferred to see this as two separate plays, with a continuous course of action inside the main narrative, it did provide a beauty of its own.

Terrell Donnell Sledge is notable as the west African caregiver Lucien who pledges his time and support to help the dying patriarch be as comfortable as possible during his final days, and to be there to support the family at the memorial service. When Ray buys ingredients and intuitively cooks an African dish without having the recipe, Lucien’s memories open up as he gently says that “the tastes remind me of home.”

When the characters speak of their family food memories being associated with love, guilt, expectation or drama, it is a culinary language that immediately resonates for a Jewish audience.

This is Todd Salovey’s 29th season at the San Diego Rep. His work continues to delight, move and provoke deeper thoughts.

“Aubergine” plays at the San Diego Repertory Theatre until February 17. For ticket information click here.

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