Stage & Dance

Review: 'Kitchen Witches' at Studio Players

It may be unenlightened, but there is nothing like following a good feud.

Leno versus Letterman, PC versus Mac, Kentucky versus Louisville, Lindsay Lohan versus half of Hollywood.

It can be fun to vicariously enjoy the bickering of others. Besides, most of the time the root of long-term squabbles is not so much about differences as it is about loving and defending the same thing in incompatible ways.

So it is for Dolly and Isobel, rival chefs who comically duke it out in Caroline Smith's The Kitchen Witches, Studio Players' latest offering.

The Kitchen Witches is a textbook example of Studio Players doing what it does best: a funny, entertaining two-hour respite from ordinary life.

A small, charismatic cast and locally flavored directorial quirks jibe with Smith's whimsical repartee in this lighthearted culinary romp.

Patricia O'Neil and Debbie Sharp share palpable onstage chemistry in their respective roles as Dolly and Isobel, former friends and 30-year enemies who are forced to co-host a cable-access cooking show. Whether arguing over who gets the better dressing room or where to put the sugar bowl, the pair display glimpses of their former friendship beneath the venom-spewing surface of their feud.

O'Neil is particularly entertaining when she shows her character's goofier, mischievous sides, such as when she co-opts a Southern-themed cooking segment by donning a ridiculously over-the-top re-creation of Scarlet O'Hara's famed green curtain dress and forces Isobel to dress like Mammy.

Sharp is a striking foil in a performance that proves comedy is her best genre. There is something shrewder about her, less at peace with herself than Dolly is, yet still comical. Sharp does a good job of showing how Isobel's inflexible ambition — the kind that made her a Cordon Bleu chef — cost her as much as she gained. She has a secret, something she needs to atone for, a plot twist that would spoil the show to reveal.

But it has to do with the past and Dolly's son Stephen. The root of their rivalry is, after all, about Stephen's father, a man they both loved.

Alex Maddox, making his third consecutive appearance in a Studio Players show this season, continues to impress. He displays the kind of natural stage charisma that cannot be taught. Like his character, Maddox is the thread that ties disparate elements of the production together. It doesn't hurt that as a cable access producer and writer, Stephen literally runs the show.

The entire cast fluidly navigates some intricate timing obstacles, particularly when it comes to juggling the myriad of food and kitchen wares that dominate the quick-paced cooking scenes. It's not as hairy as, say, the sardines in Noises Off!, but pretty close.

Speaking of quick-paced cooking scenes, by far the comedic highlight of the production is an Iron Chef-inspired two-minute cooking challenge that involves a "celebrity guest judge" from the audience. If you attend the show, you might want to wear your stage makeup, just in case.

Director Gary McCormick tweaked the script to include local references, such as fictitious on-air ads for Columbia Steakhouse or Southern Belle Dairy, which add charming regional flavor.

Those touches were not lost on the 30 or so opening-night audience members who had braved foreboding winter weather to see the show. The 50-or-so who canceled owe it to themselves to get out and see the Witches.

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