Playwright Julia Cho really likes monologues.
Cho opens both acts of her drama, “Aubergine,” with monologues, confidently delivered by veteran solo performers Shanan Custer and Sun Mee Chomet, and she makes space for the other four performers to deliver soliloquies of varying lengths, too. Intellectually, I can appreciate what’s going on. The play is, in part, about how food speaks to us, and how that comes through in different cultures — and there’s a sense that Cho is trying out different forms of presentation in “Aubergine.” The actors, speaking English and Korean, interact with each other and us in a variety of ways, which mirrors the ways they engage with food.
The effect on the play, though, is not felicitous. Throughout “Aubergine,” it feels like we’re being yanked around. Just when we get into a groove with a character or characters, there’s a blackout that lasts too long (on opening night, one caught a scene-shifter on stage), and then we’re somewhere else. Maybe this would work better as a movie, where these sorts of transitions could be smoothed out? Or maybe Cho wants us to be disoriented, but it’s hard to imagine she wants us to be annoyed by the herky-jerky nature of her work.
In individual scenes, it is gorgeous work. Chef Ray (Kurt Kwan) is caring for his father (Glenn Kubota), who is dying. Ray is assisted by his former girlfriend Cornelia (Chomet), a kind but brusque doctor (Custer), an elegant nurse (Darrick Mosley) and a stranger who arrives from Korea (Song Kim), a country to which several characters are connected. Cho has a knack for simple moments that end up lingering to color the entire play: Cornelia’s anecdote about how her family shared a whole fish when she was growing up, discussion about how to cook the eggplant that gives the play its French name and a poignant ending in which Cho’s strands wind together. There’s also this universal notion: When you don’t know what to do for someone, make soup.
In his directorial debut for Park Square Theatre, where he is the artistic director, Flordelino Lagundino has assembled actors whose divergent styles merge into something that feels bold and bright: Kim’s soulful mysteriousness (he speaks almost no English in the play) bouncing off Chomet’s candid warmth, Kubota’s quiet gravity contrasting with Mosley’s tenderness and Custer’s frankness. It’s all anchored by the well-meaning fumbling of Kwan’s Ray, who stands in for anyone trying to cope with the deaths of loved ones.
To hop on the play’s idea that food often stands in for love and memory: Those flavors create a delicious soup, even if the bowl they’re in is a little unsteady.