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"Love. Laugh. Fork. Eat" tantalizes audiences over Valentine's Day weekend

Love. Laugh. Fork. Eat.

photo taken by Aubri Stough

Touch, taste, smell, listen, look- the latest work conceived and directed Julie Akerly (JAMovement and nueBOX) is an umami rich feast for the senses. Over a four course meal Akery invites her audience into the show to love, laugh, fork, and eat alongside an ensemble cast of multi-talented creators. This show is a resounding testament to the fact that Julie Akerly is a masterful choreographer of both movement and experience.

House-distilled vodka in hand, I’m enticed to my assigned table, and seated with three pseudo strangers. Our table is nestled so close to the band, House of Stairs, that polite conversation is pleasantly impossible. This is my first encounter with the ethereal jazz trio dubbed, “one of Phoenix’s hardest working bands” by the New Times. After just a few moments I have fallen under the spell of their delicate, haunting soundscape. Holly Pyle (vocals), Garrison Jones (Keys), and Stephen Avalos (percussion, samples) are the show’s pulse. They weave through clinking of silverware, saucy vignettes, and cadences of laughter in a sonorous, velvet wave of original lyrics and recognizable covers origami’d into delightful new shapes.

The show unfolds one course at a time beginning with the presentation of a small plate to savor and moves seamlessly into juicy vignettes. First course: Carrots shaved and seasoned generously with black pepper, a slip of chewy rhye on top. Piquant conversation-starting questions accompany each dish, written on the back of the course cards: Is love at first sight real? What makes a relationship healthy? As the first plate is laid out, we are advised, “Don’t feel like you have to stuff your face, but do eat quickly. The food comes out on a schedule.” My presumptions about how a gourmet meal ‘ought’ to be experienced are already called into the open, and held starkly at odds with this direction.

Enter Mary Upchurch: “Food has been my longest and most faithful relationship.” From her opening line, Mary has my heart. Her monologue is generously self-deprecating, wry, relatable. She is accompanied by an entourage of one-liners delivered with style and sensuous pleasure by Dienae Hunter, Rebecca Witt, Jordan Daniels, and Felix Cruz. Their outfits, vibrant red, lush black, dripping in fur and spangled with sequins are at once luxurious and giddily absurd. Who orders fast food in floor-length fur? Jordan Daniels does. From the moment they enter the dining room, this ensemble cast commands, seduces, dizzies, and teases.

Performers pause, the second course emerges with practiced precision: Soft boiled egg, wasabi mustard, black garlic. No sooner had I swallowed the entire clove of black garlic, than I found myself on the dance floor with a table-mate. Facing my gracious partner, suddenly unable to hear the music or remember what to do with my body, I was viscerally transported back to my first junior high school dance. In reliving my inner child’s complete bafflement, vulnerability, and embarrassment in a ‘slow dance’ scenario, I delight in the unexpected way I’ve been drawn into Love.Laugh.Fork.Eat.

Once we’re ferried back to our seats, Mary becomes a perfect caricature of the dance teacher of your nightmares. She orchestrates a ‘master class’ for audience and ensemble alike teaching what could pass for the ugly stepchild of country line dancing and the “sexy” macarena. The class unravels quickly into a riotous, obsessive saga wherein Felix makes love to a can of spray cheese, and Rebecca goes down on a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy as an aside while the band plays a brilliantly caustic version of Beyonce’s Crazy In Love. Then, the pair begin a cheesy tango smearing and sliding and licking their way across the floor.

photo taken by Aubri Stough

The cheese footprints are still wet when course three arrives: lamb korma on a bed of barley. I notice a few fellow vegetarians looking around dubiously to see if there’s been a mistake. Nope. Chef Kraus seems to interpret gourmet love as a rich and meaty palette, end of story. As I poke politely at lamb ball growing cold in front of me, Jordan and Felix begin a romantic dance that devolves into volcanic quarreling. While they tussle, Rebecca enters playing with a huge piece of raw, bloody meat. Felix comes through for the win, slapping Jordan across the face with the massive slab of steak. If that isn’t climax enough, Dienae, donning a pair of overalls leads a crawling Felix around the space, feeding the ‘cow’ bits of cabbage. Jordan, also in overalls, delivers a monologue by Jake Friedman that takes intersectional feminism to another planet asking us to consider how we treat our soon-to-be-butchered cows and “our women”.

Dienae is just clearing the excess cabbage when our plates are swept away and dessert served. Of course, the final course is chocolate mousse with coffee beans. Rich, classic, delicate, and made even sweeter by a chorale finale proclaiming, “LOVE, above all!” The thing that sticks with me most is how this production gleefully dismembers gender norms, disembowels certain food culture taboos, and delivers a feel-good love motif-- all while serving dinner. I cannot wait to see what comes next.

Ada McCartney is an educator, literary artist, and contemplative movement practitioner. Born in Colon, Michigan, she now resides in Tempe, Arizona. The aim of her work is to find metaphor, extrapolate meaning, to liberate herself from oppressive socialization, and to explore the internal~external landscape with unencumbered attention to detail.

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