Having Her Cake

Cleveland Institute of Art grad Thu Tran plays with food on IFC

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 If "having" and "eating" could ever occupy the same place at the same time, it would be on the set of a TV cooking show — say at the Bedford-Stuyvesant pad where most episodes of the Independent Film Channel instant-cult series Food Party are filmed. From a diet-conscious standpoint, there's much to be said for HD chef-ery, which may not taste like much but bypasses the pesky consequences of actual gluttony while delivering color, drama, and even sometimes food for thought.

The uniquely delicious Food Party, conceived and served up by 27-year-old Cleveland Institute of Art grad Thu Tran, also provides some seriously crunchy comedy. The extreme visual buffet kicks off its second season on IFC at 10 p.m., Tuesday, April 27, with punchy back-to-back 15-minute segments filling out a half-hour block of the network's alt-culture programming.

Food Party's debut episode came steaming out of the native Clevelander's brain as an installation/performance/experimental video at the Cleveland Sculpture Center in 2006. The show's trademark blend of art-school whimsy and middle-school operatic intensity was immediately apparent. Jay-Z and Beyoncé came to dinner (life-size cardboard cut-outs of the couple), which was exciting in pop-culture terms. This followed the video's earlier bludgeoning and roasting of Thu's erstwhile friend Dodo Bird. Themes in other episodes run the gamut of "eggs-istential" concerns, from eros to thanatos and even beyond — as when the devil himself pays one of his periodic visits to Thu's brightly painted, home-made cardboard kitchen.

From its first posting on the web, there's been a lot of blog-driven appreciation for the show's unusual gummi worms-and-mustard flavor. Over the past year, this has blossomed into what could be called critical acclaim, and some serious Thu Tran-ophilia: USA Today ranked her 33rd on its list of 100 Most Interesting People, and a New York Times review favorably compared the burgeoning franchise to classic kid's fare like Pee Wee's Fun House. But Pee Wee's mannerist perversity seems jaded next to Food Party's forthright, joyous oral sadism.

"Hello, friends and lovers," announces Thu in a subdued tone at the beginning of last year's fast-paced "Baguette Drama." She hovers attentively over her guest, Monsieur Baguette, at a romantic table for two, lit by candles and a moose sconce. The suave Baguette (actually a phallic Italian bread with nationality issues) smokes incessantly, sports a Mona Lisa mustache, and wears sunglasses for this seductive scene. Still, the romantic sailing promises to be smooth, until Baguette collapses on the table, groaning loudly. His hostess begins to scream hoarsely at the top of her lungs and continues as she runs into the kitchen, tears open a box of fresh message-bearing pigeons and flings one out the window with an urgent note for Dr. Monkey Face, who soon arrives.

"I came as soon as I felt like it," remarks the physician, who quickly diagnoses the patient's condition: croutons, caused by a yeast infection. Thu desperately attempts to cure her lover with rice pudding, while the doctor tries to cure the cure by drying Baguette in the oven. A surprise ending reveals a would-be murderer who lives not far from the site of the infection.

Food Party's upcoming 20-episode season explores an even more demented world  of  neo-Freudian plot devices, with titles like "Deja Thu," "Cannibal Holiday," and "Poopisode." Thu, who once wanted to grow up to be Bob Barker, has built an even more pleasure-oriented realm than the famed game show host himself, using boxes like the ones that his program's consumer products came in. It's not so much the price as the time that's right for Thu's brand of, what she calls, "technicolor delight for everyone to enjoy."

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