Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: 'Cooking With the Calamari Sisters'

The new show at Society Hill Playhouse, an import from Rochester, gets more wildly funny as it goes on.

Review: 'Cooking With the Calamari Sisters'

Blog Image
Jay Falzone (left) as Delphine Calamari and Stephen Smith as Carmela Calamari, in "Cooking With the Calamari Sisters" at Society Hill Playhouse. Photo by Campbell Photography.

By Howard Shapiro

Mamma mia! Ladies, wazza-matta you? Ufff! Is this any way to behave in the kitchen? That flour’s not for throwing. That ladle’s not for bashing. And ... yikes! ... put down th ose guns!

Hey, waidaminit! Are you really ladies, ladies? Let alone sisters? I don’t think so. It looks like the frumpy one who calls herself Delphine is a guy named Jay Falzone, and the one called Carmela who thinks she’s super sexy, she’s really Stephen Smith.

Ooops, I hope I haven’t given anything away.

But you’d have to be from another planet not to see that Cooking With the Calamari Sisters is not just a spoof on food programs and public-access TV and Italian life and cuisine, but also a drag show. It has all the essentials — diva numbers that bring down the house, over-arching imitations of women at the extreme and overdone getups.

Overdone is an accurate description of Cooking With the Calamari Sisters, which otherwise could not work at such a ripe level of silliness on the main stage of Society Hill Playhouse, which brings the show here after its two-year run in Rochester, N.Y. When Calamari is not bubbling over, so to speak, it is weakest, and that’s not often, for sure.

But for the first 15 minutes of the two-act, 2 1/2-hour show that gets wilder as it progresses, Calamari is not even on simmer. This is when Carmela and Delphine sing what seems like an endless “Mambo Italiano” and set the stage, clunkily, with the sort of mugging and hamming you might associate with a church-basement production. If you begin to think, what am I doing here?, you fall into the category of a normal person.

Then the curtain opens to reveal a huge yucky-green kitchen with a 60-year-old sensibility (the set is credited to “Biff Calamari”), and Calamari suddenly is hot and ready to serve. The two actors, who created the show with Dan Lavender, are constantly at odds in their sisterly roles, as they take us through the stages of making a traditional meal — their preparation of cannoli for desert is one of the funniest parts of the evening, borrowing heavily from a long-ago Lucille Ball scene in a bakery and just as well done.

In fact, much of it is funny — I mean laugh-out-loud funny, not just amusing, and I’ll write no more than this: Calamari boosts the laff-meter by using the audience skillfully, and ticketholders chosen during the show to help are not embarrassed by doing so.

That’s because the two sisters themselves hold the distinction of always being the worst off, as they mug through an evening with equal doses of acrimony, egotism, old-fashioned charm, Italian verve and, almost coincidentally, cooking ideas. The characters are tireless and, it follows, so are the actors playing these zany cooks. What else can you say but mangia!

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Cooking With the Calamari Sisters: Through Nov. 4 at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St. Tickets: $45. Information: 215-923-0210 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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