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This Little Piggie: When she's not starring in 'Cooking Up Your Real Self,' Erica Lann-Clark enjoys telling stories to her fingers.

All Thrills, No Frills

'Cooking Up Your Real Self' strips down the theater experience with up-close-and-personal storytelling and music

By Cindy Campo

In a world where movies aren't blockbusters unless they overflow with digital flair, where almost every home has at least one TV, what person in their right mind would put on something as archaic as a play? And what good can possibly come of a theater piece with no special costumes, no set other than a couple of chairs and a smattering of musical instruments, and two real, live women with no digital enhancement? What? People actually still go to things like this?

Not only do they go, but when they do, they buzz with the ancient excitement only a live performance can awaken. At least, that is, in the case of Cooking Up Your Real Self, a collaboration between very talented storyteller Erica Lann-Clark and singer/musician Penny Hanna running through this week at the Actors' Theatre. Lann-Clark carries the narrative line--with real flair, as well as humor--while Hanna provides elegant musical accompaniment with no mic and with such ease she makes great singing seem effortless.

A good storyteller is worth a thousand blockbusters. If you have ever seen Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, either the play or the movie version, you know that Lily Tomlin simply rocked as the sole actor in the entire piece. But she didn't write the screenplay, she was telling other people's stories. Lann-Clark tells her own stories. As she says, "Very few of us become famous ... so we turn our lives into art, telling each other stories about who we are."

Famous or not, she takes this telling a step further, bringing to the stage stories of growing up Jewish in America. Each story is segued by a different instrument that Hanna deftly handles as she sings.

Lann-Clark tells her tales with such gusto, power and playfulness that you don't even notice the lack of set and costumes. One highlight involves her failed attempts to crash the most elite clique at her high school, the "cashmere set." Later, though, she becomes the leader of all the cliques, demanding a Ban the Bomb dance and inciting the sweater girls to call for a Mahatma Gandhi prom. Erica's father, impressed, tells her, "Erica, you are my son."

Brecht Fest

In a moment that captures the spirit of their collaboration, Hanna then stirs up a frolicking little version of the finale of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera (which you may recognize as the theme music from Jennifer Stone's show on KPFA). Brecht wends his way into the play via Lann-Clark's father, who says, "You fight fire with fire. You fight with your spirit, like Brecht." Erica's evocation of the playwright, who seems to be one of her influences, introduces the idea of theater as actor/audience interchange, though she never interacts with the audience directly.

At one point, Lann-Clark conjures up the '60s, evoking some haunting resonance to current events with a line about "a war nobody wanted, nobody thought they could stop." (Hanna sings the Beatles' "Revolution"). She also drops in Wilhelm Reich, famous for his libido studies, weaving into her own story a tale of a dark secluded place known as Reich's orgasmic hideaway that houses the mysterious "accumulator."

Although Cooking Up Your Real Self is about the Jewish American experience, being Jewish is not a prerequisite for enjoying the show. You don't even have to know what a mensch is, and you needn't have experienced the taste of kugel to appreciate one of the longer tales that involves this food as a road to spiritual and sexual redemption.

If you have never heard of a Hin-Jew, or a Jew-Bu, you should come see this play. If it were a meal, prepared by Erica Lann-Clark and Penny Hanna, its courses would first rouse your appetite, then tickle it, then deliciously and spicily fill you, but not to the aching point, and finally delight you with a smooth, exuberant finish. And what's more, if you keep the program, you will walk away with your very own copy of a recipe for Viennese Goulash. Bon appetit!

Cooking Up Your Real Self runs Thusday-Sunday. $12-$15. Actors' Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.7529.

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From the April 9-16, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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