Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Cake (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Someone I know recommended Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake to me.  Given the Echo Theatre Company is mounting it, I needed little encouragement.  At the time, though, not even having seen the poster, what I didn't know the subject matter.

Now I do.  The Cake of the title refers to a wedding cake for a ceremony between two women, one of whose oldest friends (and best friend to her late mother) feels compelled to refuse to bake.  Okay, that was a convoluted sentence.  Let me give it another try.

Credit: Darret Sanders
Della (Debra Jo Rupp) feels immense pride in her skills as a baker, in particular her cakes.  She runs a bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and starts the play with her baking philosophy.  Follow the directions.  Which is pretty much her life's philosophy as well.  To this she attributes the quality of her cakes, not to any skill on her part--a factor both charming and a tiny bit sad.  Now she's been invited to participate in a t.v. show, The Great American Bake-Off and expects this philosophy of no improvisation but rigid following what has gone before will lead her to victory.   Again, both charming and a little bit sad.

But not quite that simple, either.

Credit: Darret Sanders
She's explaining all this to a visitor from New York named Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), a young woman aggressively if charmingly uber-liberal in all kinds of stereotypical ways.  She calls sugar and milk "poison," assumes the The Great American Bake-Off is fixed, insists she's gluten sensitive (a dietary buzzword if there ever was one), sees everything in terms of corporate conspiracy, etc.  Clearly the two of them don't really get along, but both prove ultimately too nice as well as too polite to let it become an argument.

Then, enter Jen, formerly Jennifer (Shannon Lucio).  The daughter of Della's late best friend, clearly someone Della sees as family.  Back home from New York for the first time in oh so long and now engaged to be married!  Wow!  Fireworks!  Of course Della insists she must make the wedding cake!
Credit: Darret Sanders

Until she finds out Jenn is going to marry Macy.

Honestly, this could so easily have become a polemic and a fairly boring one too.  We the audience will almost certainly remain firmly on Jenn and Macy's side, thinking Della wrong.  Including me.  Such remains absolutely my view!  Yet all the while, efforts to portray everyone involved as fundamentally human, each with a story worthy of telling rather than dismissed prove so very successful.  Much of that does indeed lie within the script.  Macy remains so very annoying in her self-righteousness.  Della comes across as so kind, so reluctant to hurt anyone and deeply ashamed of doing so.  We see Jen's genuine torment feeling torn in two by different sets of values, each with flaws and virtues (in a less subtle work her name might well have been Columbia if not America).

Credit: Darret Sanders
Likewise Della's husband Tim (Joe Hart) emerges as a well meaning man, one living with some deep pain of his own and demonstrating a nice ability to do more than judge.  Another example of how the cast directed by Jennifer Chambers really does do some wonders.

All of which leads not to a simple reconciliation or healing, no clear-cut compromise or simple forgiveness all around.  No.  We might expect that.  Or we might think the two sides in the story would flatly refuse in the end to have much to do with one another.  No listening.  No consideration.  Just fierce and unyielding contest to the death of...well, somebody or something.  Which feels nice.  It feels hopeful.  It also, in the current climate, feels somehow false.

Credit: Darret Sanders
But that also means it makes one think.  The United States contains literally hundreds of millions of people.  Aren't plenty of them this kind, this civilized, this fundamentally nice--pretty much all along the political spectrum?  In fact, when I think on it some very lovely human beings I've known were pretty right wing, even expecting/hoping the world to be destroyed pretty soon.  Just as some of those with whom I share opinions exhibit as much strident unwillingness to listen as any Alt.right racist.  And everything in between.

Because this is not a tale of great issues or political movements.  Rather it tells of an important series of events between members of an extended family.  An intimate, small scale story.  The kind which rarely ends up in history books yet makes up the vast majority of human interactions, really.

Herein therefore lies a special commodity:  Hope.

The Cake plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until August 13, 2017 (with a Wednesday performance August 9 at 8pm) at the Echo Theatre Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Aveneu, Los Angeles CA 90039.

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