Sunday, March 8, 2020

In Fonseca Theatre Company's 'The Cake,' one of the fronts in today's culture wars is examined on a private battlefield

Della dreams of success with her cakes in "The Great American Bake-Off."
Two clashing aspects of American freedom receive scrutiny in "The Cake," a hard-wrought comedy by Bekah Brunstetter currently on the Fonseca Theatre Company stage. If your religious views incline you to reject homosexuality, you may not want your business to endorse its expression. If your identity cries out for free exercise, you are not likely to accept barriers placed in its way.

The show avoids the legal side of the struggle around gay marriage, famously sanctioned by the Supreme Court but subject to pushback from businesses catering to weddings when their owners object. Is religious freedom at stake, or simply the privilege of bigotry? More than that question is aired in "The Cake": Private struggles with identity, friendship, and down-home versus big-city values are woven into a tight fabric by the playwright. The cast negotiates the issues with speed and fervor under the direction of Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Della (Jean Arnold) is the proud proprietor of a thriving bakery in a North Carolina small town. She is an effervescent advocate for her craft and her cake mastery, with enough ambition to place quite a lot of weight upon her chances in culinary competition on TV. The suave on-air host, voiced by Dwuan Watson, commands respect and offers encouragement as well as correction and constant challenge to mere contestants. He's interactive to a fault. In sum, he is a kind of celebrity Jehovah, and Brunstetter uses the resemblance imaginatively as a creative prod.

We first see Della on a prideful talking jag, which we process as a soliloquy until the lights go up on Macy (Chandra Lynch), seated on the other side of the stage furiously taking notes for reasons unclear to both the audience and Della. It turns out Macy is doing some scouting of the business to assess how receptive Della may be to making a wedding cake for her and Jen (Kyrsten Lyster), a hometown girl who came out after self-exile to the big city, where she and an African-American Brooklyn sophisticate met and fell in love.

Della defends her traditional beliefs, manifested at the start as she puts finishing touches on a Noah's Ark cake with edible animal representation. But she is malleable and warily capable of honoring her deep-rooted friendship with Jen; she just can't find room in her schedule to bake the couple's wedding cake. Her susceptibility to having her mind changed contrasts with her husband, the rather stolid plumber, Tim (Adam O. Crowe). The heterosexual couple's  troubles with intimacy turn out to suggest a path forward, which allows "The Cake" to reach a positive resolution at the end of its uninterrupted 100-minute span.

I wish the playwright had resisted the sex-farce schemes Tim and Della set up to overcome their
Macy and Jen talk about plans for their big day.
difficulties; the slapstick is discordant. And she can't seem to hold back from presenting Della and Macy as polar opposites in all respects: The homespun baker reads the Bible, the prickly outsider reads Richard Dawkins. They are at fiercely opposite poles on acceptable foods and the culpability of the corporate food culture. Macy rattles off a litany of mainstream evils when it comes to what we eat for comfort and nurture. I think their apartness in all respects is overdrawn.

At least that leaves us in no doubt as to what Jen must overcome in normalizing a same-sex wedding in her conservative hometown. You get the feeling that Della would be the least of her problems in such an environment. Yet certainly not everything is smooth between the prospective brides. It would have been good to feel that the romantic ardor of Macy and Jen was as firm as the ferocity of their lovers' quarrels. Lynch and Lyster were at their best Saturday night when their characters were mad at each other. That they were also mad for each other was muted in comparison.

Some shortcomings of "The Cake" can be ascribed to the playwright. The director drew from the cast lively execution of all the roles, with the main performance flaw being an almost unrelieved rapidity. Nuance of pacing comes up now and then over the course of the action, but the norm is for lines to almost tread on each other's heels. Facial expressions are quick to register emotion, but the performance needed more breathing room.

The one place this seemed crucial was when Macy enters the shop just as Jen is breaking down emotionally over the gulf between her and Della. "Are you OK?" she asks immediately. Jen soon exits in distress, and Macy and Della get into a major airing of their differences, the bulk of hostility coming from Macy. It would have been great to have her suspicions register visually before she asks if her fiancee is OK. Taking in Jen's evident misery, then pausing to shoot a dagger-like look at Della before she utters a word, would have put a foundation under the torrential set-to that follows.

Bernie Killian's set design is quite serviceable. The plainness of the bakery feels right for a milieu out of which Della's large visions of prize-winning cookery can be launched. Through scrims on either side of a center door, bedroom scenes involving both couples can be played. Bryan Fonseca's lighting design precisely guides our views of each area. In keeping with the fast tempo of the dialogue, the production's technical aspects seemed to go smoothly.

"The Cake" affords a welcome opportunity to realize that beneath every major issue convulsing dialogue in the public square lies a host of personal difficulties that ordinary people have to work through, hoping that love and understanding will eventually triumph.

1 comment:

  1. Do you provide information as to what the company is and where the stage is?