“Cookin’ ” is a staged food fight, Emeril gone berserk in a Korean kitchen. A huge hit in South Korea since it opened in 1997 and seen in more than 1,500 international performances throughout Europe, Asia and North America, the show has begun a U.S. tour at Boston’s Shubert Theater.
The set represents a kitchen with four work stations. An elaborate array of onstage lighting grids pour down livid stabs of green, blue, red and purple. The slim dramatic conceit is this: Three chefs have been given an hour to prepare a wedding banquet of dozens of different dishes. The only “help” is the manager’s inexperienced nephew.
After a brief opening nod to ancient Korean kitchen rituals, the show soon becomes an excuse for everyone to beat the hell out of every possible kitchen implement in a percussive frenzy based on traditional Korean music and “the routine beat of Korean life.” Chopped vegetables are soon being strewn all over the stage and hurled at the audience. The decibel level makes “Stomp” seem like a lullaby in retrospect.
The climax is a simulated food fight in which the cast hurls hundreds of plastic balls at the audience, the audience returning fire. Prior to that there’s frantic dancing and gyrating, some juggling of plates, a few magic acts, sharp knives manipulated, pole duels fought and martial arts moves exhibited. There’s also a chase sequence in which a duck eludes decapitation but is ultimately gunned down.
Audience participation is not limited to the faux food fight. There is also group singing of “Happy Birthday,” and audience members are inveigled onstage as tasters and as members of two teams competing to make dumplings.
The raunchy bits include a female chef preparing a phallic cucumber and a male cook having a broom handle shoved up his rear. This is a show that theatergoers will either like or loathe — there’s no in between.
The cast, including a lithe young woman and a chubby manager, are sweating profusely by the end of the 80 minutes of mayhem. Apparently they are not chefs or acrobats but genuine actors: Most of their bios list Shakespearean credits, but “Cookin’ ” ain’t Shakespeare.