Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Society member; photos by Michael Brosilow
I’m not sure that I have ever before seen a play in which the act of oral sex was portrayed onstage not once, but twice, and almost a third time. I am sure that I’ve never seen one in which these acts were simultaneously critical to characterization and secondary to the main plot. That is the case with The Cake, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s latest offering. From the moment you step foot in the theatre, you are transported by vanilla-scented candles into a most adorable bakery, so colorful and sweet that you know you are going to laugh a lot. But that’s not the core of this smart piece of theatre. Written by Bekah Brunstetter, The Cake is a warm-hearted portrayal of the conflict between religion and homosexuality, using as a template the now-familiar case (currently in front of the Supreme Court) of a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Brunstetter has no agendas to settle here: she somehow manages to make all characters sympathetic and help us to see things from new perspectives.
Too often in this sort of play, the conservative character is the villain. One of Brunstetter’s most brilliant moves, therefore, was to let us get to know Della (Rivendell’s Artistic Director Tara Mallen, in a brave and powerful performance) as a person before introducing any elements that might cause some of the audience to cast her in any negative light. We see her from the start as a human being—a friendly, chatty, sympathetic person whose cakes are so good that she has won herself a place on The Great American Bake-Off. Her opening monologue about the errors people too often make in baking cakes (spoiler alert: the secret is to follow directions) is wonderfully comic but perfectly honest; Della lives for her cakes and the way they make both her and her customers feel. It turns out that this entire monologue is part of a conversation Della is having with Macy, a young New York writer visiting this North Carolina burg and clearly finding this sweet, uncomplicated Christian woman fascinating, taking down every morsel of southern comfort that comes from her mouth.
Macy (Krystel McNeil), who refuses to eat gluten and therefore cannot enjoy the cakes, is in the bakery waiting for Jen (Tuckie White), a young transplanted North Carolinian who has returned to her hometown to get married…to Macy. Jen has insisted that the wedding take place here, despite the fact that both young women are acutely aware of southern biases against lesbians and gays, in honor of her deceased mother, and she desperately wants Della, an old friend of the family who might as well be an aunt, to bake the wedding cake. When Della, who initially received this news enthusiastically, finds out that it is Macy whom Jen is marrying, she finds her Christian belief system challenged: can she refuse to bake it, even for Jen, whom she loves like the daughter she could never have? When she declines the order, transparently citing how “busy” she will be at that time of year, the stage is set for the scenes to follow.
Mallen is incredible as Della. Her character’s inner conflict, evident from the start, is developed in a series of scenes in which she imagines herself already at the bake-off as her emotional turmoil causes things to spiral deeper and deeper into chaos. (Through some oversight on the part of Rivendell, the voice-over actor playing the TV show’s emcee in Della’s mind is not identified in the program: unfortunate because his performance brings out her tortured mind in delightfully comic moments.) Mallen is especially strong in scenes with Keith Kupferer, who plays Della’s husband Tim, a plumber whose outlook on life is simple and clear: obey the Bible and do your job. He has not touched Della intimately in a decade. Mallen and Kupferer play the couple’s dynamic close to the vest, revealing their love in such tiny portions that audience members might incorrectly assume that Tim is the piece’s villain. Not so: Brunsetter is beyond such simple machinations. If the piece has a villain, it is society itself, the force that sets such sympathetic people against each other and tears holes in the souls of Jen and Della.
White is a revelation as Jen. Her mannerisms and physical ticks show someone who has suddenly arrived back in her hometown and finds herself, as so many do in such circumstances, reacting as she did when she was growing up there. In other words, she seems childlike and innocent, a fact that her more worldly fiancée comments upon. Macy is supremely sure of herself and morally superior in the way that causes many millennials to irritate older generations, but that superiority has been earned; she’ll learn to be more social with those with whom she disagrees as she matures. McNeil is wonderful as this young, outspoken journalist who can’t stop herself from calling out what she perceives as injustice, no matter the cost. She carries herself with such assurance that one might think she is fully in control, but beneath it all there is a raw heart beating that we see on several occasions.
The weighty social issues at play here, as well as the intimate relations between two couples, and the free-wheeling use of imagined moments, make this a complicated play to direct, but Lauren Shouse handles all of it deftly, keeping the action moving along briskly but allowing time for several silent emotional moments along the way without ever becoming heavy-handed. And though the whole thing resolves itself in a too-facile way, that is hardly the director’s fault. The performances she gets from all four actors are exemplary. She cues the audience in on changes in focus or entries into Della’s imagination through the use of the creative lighting by Cat Wilson and excellent sound design by Shannon Marie O’Neill. (One small scene involving Tim watching TV highlights both wonderfully.) And that cupcake-perfect set, a clever and surprising design by Arnel Sanciano, is just golden. This is the only show I have ever come across that has a Cake Choreographer listed in the credits (and Erin Martin deserves some kind of shout-out for decorating that set with delicious-looking confections). As for the whole oral sex thing? Let’s just say I’ll never look at mashed potatoes the same way and leave it at that.
The Cake is now playing at Rivendell Theatre through May 20. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Rivendell Theatre.