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Utah playwright Melissa Leilani Larson's first children's play, "The Edible Complex," might be considered a comedy with a message, but perhaps more simply, it's a love letter to food.
"I tell people don't come to the show hungry," says Larson, also the writer of Plan-B Theatre's "Pilot Program" from 2015, the screenplay for the 2015 movie "Freetown," and noted local stage adaptations of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" and "Pride and Prejudice." "Two dozen things I like to eat get mentioned in it. I want it to be a whole theatrical experience. The message is gravy, and it's an on-the-side kind of thing."
"Edible" tells the story of a young girl, Anna, played by Anne Louise Brings, who wants to be a chef. She breaks up with her foodie crushes for a time when she realizes that her mother, played by Dee-Dee Darby Duffin, is dieting to lose weight.
Part of the fun of the play is that Anna's favorite foods begin talking to her. Duffin, a former third-grade teacher who now trains other teachers at American Preparatory Academy charter schools, also plays those food voices. In the course of the play, she dons cheeseburger and turkey taco hats, à la samba singer and dancer Carmen Miranda, as well as other food-related costume pieces, all designed by Aaron Swenson.
Larson's script is the centerpiece of Plan-B Theatre's fourth annual free elementary school show, which kicks off its tour to grades 4-6 in seven Utah counties with a public performance. The premiere will be Saturday, Oct. 8, as part of the Ring Around the Rose family arts series. (See box for show details.)
The company's school tours feature stripped-down shows designed to play in cafetoriums.
As part of the tour, the theater company offers a study guide with resources to help teachers talk with their students about body image. Some 50 percent of Utah girls in fourth grade and 80 percent of those in fifth grade say they have dieted, according to a 2015 BYU-Idaho study. "Utah boys and girls grades 4-6 are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents," the study guide states. In addition, obesity is higher among fifth-grade boys than girls (13.2 percent vs. 8.9 percent).
"Children eat the foods that I play, grilled cheese sandwiches and waffles and chicken wings and root beer floats and brownies and shish kabobs," says Duffin, adding that she used to keep a drawer in her classroom filled with energy foods for her students. "I never in my wildest imagination thought I would have to determine what a food would sound like if it could talk."
For Duffin, the play is written for students, but its themes might have greater resonance for their parents. Adults don't always realize how their casual comments might affect their kids' relationship to foods, she says.
Director Cheryl Cluff says she has begun paying more attention to how she talks about her body and food, working harder to emphasize health, rather than appearance. "Hopefully with this play, it will help encourage kids to know that there's all kinds of body types, and one isn't any better than any of the others," she says.
Larson says she consciously chose not to include fast food in the show. "It's all about going home and cooking something you want to eat," she says. "I think that's a great message in and of itself."
The Edible Complex
A public performance will kick off Plan-B's fourth annual free elementary school tour, running in October and November, featuring Melissa Leilani Larson's play "The Edible Complex." The premiere is part of the 19th season of Repertory Dance Theatre's Ring Around the Rose family arts series.
When • Saturday, Oct. 8, 11 a.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $5 (plus fees), available at artsaltlake.org, rdtutah.org or planbtheatre.org/ticketsgiving
More • For information about the theater company's school tour or study guide for the play, visit planbtheatre.org/theediblecomplex