'Cascabel'

Chef Rick Bayless and Lookingglass Theater are remixing dinner theater the way molecular gastronomy remixes lemon peels.

Would you like some cirque with your ceviche? Some foreign-film-like, mysterious-and-magical-outsider plot (think “Chocolat”) with your mole? A flavoring of flamenco with that chocolate cake topped with blood orange foam? Then by all means take a lightly transporting, delicious vacation to “Cascabel,” where chef Rick Bayless and Lookingglass Theater are remixing dinner theater the way molecular gastronomy remixes lemon peels.

Bayless’ PBS show “Mexico — One Plate at a Time” is on its eighth season, but he reached a new level of fame when he won the first “Top Chef Masters” competition, telling his life story in a few courses and moving judges with his mole. “Cascabel” seems an inevitable extension of the ongoing convergence of food and narrative: These days, dining is a form of experiential entertainment.

It would be easy to argue that the evening skimps on real storytelling. Wondering whether the mysterious cook (Bayless) at the Mexican boarding house (lovingly realized by designer Brian Bembridge) will win over the broken-hearted lady of the house (Chiara Mangiameli) has all the suspense of wondering whether Tony and Tina will get married.

But let’s be fair. First, nobody wants tragedy with a tasting menu, and actual suspense might be cause for indigestion. So even if the dialogue is under-seasoned, the choices to let the love story serve as a delicate drizzle of sauce that helps bring the dish together — and let our comedic Maitre d’ (Jess Perez) act as schticky garnish — must be considered smart.

All the more reason that credit has to go to co-creator, co-director and co-star Tony Hernandez, who ensures the acrobatics comprise a worthy part of the main course. It’s initially worrisome that upon tasting the mole, performer Alexandra Pivaral heads to an onstage bathroom, but the idea is that the magical Oaxacan recipe has gifted her with the ability to contort, and her acrobatic twirls around the tub are pretty mesmerizing. Same with the gorgeous post-mole dance of the two single diners (Nicolas Besnard and Shenea Booth).

Hernandez himself, playing a houseboy and aspiring cook’s apprentice, manages to combine comedy with a high-wire act, which is pretty rare. It’s a great routine.

And while the Gardener (Jonathan Taylor) and his wife (Anne Goldmann) force too much funniness down the aud’s throats much of the time, their bit involving a banana food fight is inspired comedy.

Now, the othercriticism here is that theatergoers have a choice. You can pay $225 for “Cascabel,” with a three-course meal and a serving of cirque, or you could go to Bayless’s fine dining establishment Topolo-bampo and for about the same price have a meal with the wine flight.

They’re both good options. And with “Cascabel” logging strong sales, they’re both tough to get into.

Cascabel

Lookingglass Theater, Chicago, Ill.; 150 seats; $225 top

Production

A Lookingglass Theater, Frontera Grill, and Silverguy Entertainment presentation of a performance in one act and a meal in three courses. Co-created by Rick Bayless, Tony Hernandez, and Heidi Stillman. Co-directed by Hernandez and Stillman.

Creative

Set and lighting, Brian Bembridge; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld, Lijana Wallenda Hernandez; music and sound, Rick Sims, Andre Pluess; dance choreography, Emilee Peterson; rigging designer, Lee Brasuell; stage manager, Rose Marie Packer. Opened, reviewed March 27, 2012. Runs through April 29. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Musician - Carlo Basile
Cook - Rick Bayless
Solitary Traveler - Nicolas Besnard
Solitary Traveler - Shenea Booth
Suitor - Thomas J. Cox
Gardener's Wife - Anne Goldmann
Houseboy - Tony Hernandez
Senora - Chiara Mangiameli
Maitre d' - Jesse Perez
Bathing Chica - Alexandra Pivaral
Daughter - Lindsey Noel Whiting

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