Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta, Gate Theatre

by Louis Train

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an odd show, odder even than the name promises. Edith Alibec stars as a young Romanian woman, pre-pubescent in the earliest scenes, who grows up in a traveling circus where her mother hangs from the big top by her hair. The play is based on Aglja Veteranyi’s autobiographical novel of the same name.

The premise of ­Polenta is exciting and exotic, and Alibec and director Dana Paraschiv deliver a world of mystery, violence, and sex. The story is shadowed by doubt; everything comes from a child’s young and creative mind – there’s no certainty for the audience that anything she says is true. We rely on her as our guide into a world none of us, surely, has ever visited, a world where God lives in the ground and yodeling rings from the hills. It is counter-intuitive, disarming really, to put your faith in the hands of a child. Polenta is new, in that way. Alibec and Paraschiv are on to something.

But the execution is a bit confused. The protagonist spends a long time at the beginning of the play spinning unrelated anecdotes and charming details from her life. When a story actually does emerge, it hardly does justice to the world Alibec has created. Much of the action is spent not at the circus, but in an austere German school where children drill grammar ad nauseum. Why build such an exciting world only to leave it? The hero eventually returns to performing, and when she does, the show picks up steam again; sexuality comes into the mix, and her complex relationship with her mother is explored further. Then she goes back to the German school.

Edith Alibec is a performer of considerable ability. She is convincing as a child, something few actors are, and she is able to pull  back the curtain on an entire invisible world with little in the way of props or scenery. I just wish Alibec and Dana Paraschiv would take a pair of pliers to their play, straightening out the kinks and making it stronger in the process.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta runs through 4 May.

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