Unicorn presents new comic play to standing ovation

Strap on your seat belts and get ready to be entertained by a cast of comic performances, outrageous situations, and laugh a minute antics in a New York restaurant kitchen as they cook, stew, spew, and prepare dinners for the hungry throng awaiting their dinners in The Unicorn Theatre’s new production that opened Jan. 28.

Matt Rapport as Chef George and Damron Russel Armstrong as Steve.

Matt Rapport as Chef George and Damron Russel Armstrong as Steve.

Guests entered the Levin Stage to find themselves looking at an elaborate set that resembled a professional kitchen in a New York restaurant. “How to Use a Knife” by Will Snider uses the backdrop of the kitchen to assemble his characters of assorted backgrounds to tell the story of the relationships that build among people from different cultures, backgrounds, and different needs. Therein lies the heart of the play–the building of relationships, trusts, reality, and illusion.

Snider’s play challenges the audience to see beyond the physical appearances of different nationalities and learn about the characters of each employee. Through the hierarchy of their jobs, they all fall in line, from the owner to the food runner. Each has his job to do; each has his place; and each has individual needs. The honesty and story of each character fill the play with funny verbal spikes, honest glimpse into each life, and the relationships each character builds.

Cynthia Levin, producing artistic director, again struck gold when she booked “How to Use a Knife,” part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Similar plays from this association have played successfully in past seasons at The Unicorn. For “How to Use a Knife,” directing honors went to Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

In casting, Garrett selected two top Kansas City actors who perform regularly throughout the Metro. Matt Rapport and Damron Russel Armstrong bring a wealth of talent; Slowly, and, according to Rapport, although they have been friends for years, “How to Use a Knife” becomes their first pairing on stage. The result is magic as they milk their characters for every laugh available and build a relationship as sturdy as cured concrete. Their chemistry is astounding.

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Rapport come to the restaurant to take over as chef and needs to make the kitchen “his” kitchen, first by establishing pecking order and then by building rapport with each worker. Slowly, as relationships build, his story emerges, mostly in scenes with Steve, the dishwasher, Armstrong. His dialogue with Michael, the boss sets the beginnings of his story and sets the pace for what’s upcoming. Rapport’s quick, fiery delivery provides jaw-dropping humor, and his performance is physically challenging enough to wear anyone out. He is strong and consistent throughout, and proves he can carry a show.

Damron Russel Armstrong, take on the role of Steve, a character near the bottom of the hierarchy as the mostly silent dishwasher. Steve’s story unfolds as the audience learns he does speak and understand English but chooses to remain focused on his dishes until Chef George breaks the ice and learns to trust him as their relationship develops. Armstrong’s character brings a lot of the comedy to the show with his foreign character who does not always understand jokes and takes colloquial comments as literal. Armstrong’s character remains fun, even as his dark past come to light. He is fun to watch as he works through “How to Use a Knife,”

Setting the whole play up and providing the introduction to the story to follow, K.C. veteran Brian Paulette brings a character, so wrong on so many levels, yet so fun to watch and laugh at. His proprietor character of Michael bursts onto the set with machine-gun rapid fire dialogue full of profanity, racial slurs, and just downright inappropriate comments. Paulette unfurls a womanizing, blowhard character who knows all to well how to bark orders yet fails to know how take charge. Most of Paulette’s time on stage brings some of the best laughs in the first part of the play.

Next down the line of fire is Carlos, the dedicated cook who works the grill and stove like a master. His focus remains on his work and his Mexican heritage make him the brunt of many of the charged remarks. His character brings the balance to the work force, and his focus shows the plight of many non-White workers doing menial jobs to stay afloat. In this role, Justin Barron excels. His delivery is precise and his expressions remain constant as he brushes aside racist comments. His heart comes to the forefront as he helps Chef George understand the needs of Miguel his assistant.

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As the undocumented worker, Miguel adds comic relief as the Spanish-speaking sous-chef. His lines are few, but he rattles them off in DSpanish with as quick delivery as the balance of the cast. D’Andre McKinzie gives voice to Miguel. His character is fun throughout the play. Even those who do not understand Spanish will get the flavor of his comments with careful attention to the context surrounding them. He represents those in the shadows that must remain silent or face consequences. His story comes to light mostly through Carlos who understands and wants to help him remain employed so he can support his young family.

The bottom of the staff comes in the form of the food runner and bus boy. J. Will Fritz’ character must contend with the service staff in the restaurant and the temperamental cooking crew. No matter where he goes, he’s on the bottom. Though he tries to work his way up, his challenge is that he’s white, college educated, and working well below his station to get some footing and move forward. An aspiring writer with nothing in common with the staff, he can only remain the outsider. Fritz brings a hopeful character to the framework who cannot navigate the rough waters. His performance is funny, yet hopeless. Fritz delivers just the right amount of each.

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The lone female in the show, Carla Noack plays Kim, a government official looking for an international criminal being pursued as a war criminal. Her character is a matter-of-fact character focused solely on her job. She wards off advances by the proprietor and sticks to her job. Noack gives a stage strong performance in her limited time on stage. Her character is all business and demonstrates the attitude that women are not as well-respected as men in the job force, As such, she needs to remain more straight and focused on her job. Noack, again, dominates the stage with each entrance.

Overall, “How to Use a Knife” excels on all level. It presents a kaleidoscope of characters, their stories, and their relationships in a funny, yet believable way. The play is about relationships, loyalty, friendship, mutual sharing and caring. While the play contains some dark episodes, the overall effect is a day-by-day slice of life in a restaurant–or an office–or any workplace. The theme is universal. Change the setting and the same story could develop wherever different types of people assemble.

“How to Use a Knife” represents another winning choice for The Unicorn. Playwright Will Snider has a winner of a play as it continue to develop.

Tickets, time, dates, and more information can be found on the Unicorn website.

Tags: “How to Use a Knife”, The Unicorn Theatre, Kansas City, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Arts & Entertainment-Kansas City

Images courtesy of Unicorn Thea, Cynthia Levi, Cynthia Levin and Bob Evans

Author: Bob Evans

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