The Thrust: In This Week’s Shows, the Rules Are What You Make Them
In two shows that opened this weekend, strong female leads are in the camera’s eye as their safe, comfortable social orders are challenged. Will they grow or collapse? Find out next episode at a southern bakery in As If Theatre Company’s The Cake, and a living room of stifling perfection in Village Theatre’s The Book Club Play.
Here are my takeaways from each.
The Cake @ As If Theatre Company
It’s just not natural / Well, neither is confectioner’s sugar
Della’s got it all figured out. Roots planted firmly in Winston-Salem, she spends the work day in her own cake shop, amid the aromas of baked goods and buttercream, whipping up the finest special-occasion cakes in the Triad. And the big-city folks are finally taking notice: Della’s been invited to compete on her favorite baking competition show, the Big American Bake-Off, in front of a national audience.
Adhering to her tried-and-true approach, she knows that success is all in following the directions; whether they’re mapped out in the Bible or a cookbook, she’s studied up and ready for anything. Or is she?
Meanwhile, Della’s best friend’s daughter, Jen, is happy to return home from Brooklyn; for while apartments in that borough don’t cram your shower in the kitchen like Manhattan’s might, it’s far from the easy sprawl of central North Carolina.
Jen’s got a big surprise, and she can’t wait to tell Della about it when she asks that Della do the honor of baking her wedding cake. It’s a day they’ve all dreamed of since then-Jenny was little, back when Jen’s mother was still alive. It won’t really matter that much that none of them imagined Jen’s wedding would be to a woman. Will it?
You can probably guess where this dramedy is going. In Della’s world, where the shop’s wi-fi password references a Bible verse, heterosexuality is both a given and a moral imperative; the idea of celebrating a same-sex marriage, even for family, doesn’t sit right with her. Meanwhile, Jen may have followed her heart and her own moral compass, but she’s not so far removed from home that she’s immune to some deep-seated guilt for even asking. And yet, it’s family; why would she presume Della would balk at the cake?
The two might have worked out their differences quietly — over illicit Chick-fil-A, no less — if their other halves hadn’t barged in.
The Cake, a 2017 piece by prolific playwright and TV writer Bekah Brunstetter, is about the meanings of home and values, whether as anchors or constrictions. All four of its characters need to work through what means most to them and decide where they’re willing to budge, and the hyper-personal moments are what keep this play from spiraling into one of political poles, theology, or legality. But this is clearly Della’s play, and it’s her quandaries — familial, spiritual, personal, and practical — that make for the most interesting reckonings.
They also make for a good choice of production for As If Theatre Company. As If, a relative newcomer as a company and one of very few based in the Northshore suburbs, tends to put up plays that have mass appeal but are nonetheless challenging and a bit quirky. And while the company is new, its founders know what they’re doing.
Della has met her match in Amy Gentry, who portrays Della with a strength made earnest by heart over dogma. There’s a lot of vulnerability in the role, and it shines through in ways subtle (when Della tries to make sense of some big-city ways) and not-so-subtle (when she takes a unique approach to grabbing her husband’s attention). And whether it’s a credit to Gentry, director Cindy Giese French, or dialect coach Kelly Flynt, Della’s is the first time a staged Carolina accent hasn’t driven me nuts.
Patrick Hogan plays husband Tim, a character who could easily have gone dull and one-dimensional. Hogan’s portrayal is one that’s a meeting of different minds in one thick skull; checked-out and deeply committed; literal in conviction and floundering in uncertainty; self-certain and self-conscious.
Acting from Stephanie Spohrer and Roz Cornejo feels a bit forced at first — which could have been opening night jitters — but settles in nicely. Spohrer plays a Jen who’s convincingly searching for answers; and as Jen’s would-be wife, Macy, the all-important final scene may be Cornejo’s strongest.
As for the staging, there’s a lot of set crammed into a small and shallow stage, and that makes for some blocking challenges when the action takes place on either side. But overall, the production and design are a successful make-it-work moment, creating a rich and detailed world for the play in a structurally confined area. Set designer Sarah Kessler envisioned a fun and tasty bake shop, where most of the action takes place, with an entertaining eye for detail (like that JOHN316 wi-fi password sign).
In probably the most compelling aspects of the play, a recurring device has a spotlight bearing down as Della’s inner monologue harasses her through an imagined Bake-Off announcer’s voice — delving into the thoughts she won’t dare contend with out loud. Staging is crucial to make the gimmick work, and here again they hit the right blend of drama and comedy.
Beyond some breakthrough moments, there’s not too much probing or all that controversial in The Cake. But it’s a thoughtful play and very funny; and As If’s staging avoids the saccharine while bringing out the buttercream-sweet.
The Cake runs through 3/20 at Kenmore Community Club. Tickets $27.50, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
The Book Club Play @ Village Theatre
Forgive me for being a culture snob. But some of us need to have standards.
It feels ironic to be writing about a play about book clubs when I’ve been ignoring my own book clubs lately in order to go back to seeing (and writing about) so much theatre. But here we are.
Known primarily for musicals, Village Theatre does occasionally put up a play. Their pre-pandemic one, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fit well with Village’s heavily choreographed, design-emphasizing production strengths, and was a great show. The one before that, The Gin Game, was a rather unenjoyable story and drew decidedly less so on Village’s production strengths.
Their current production, a contemporary play by Karen Zacarías, directed by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez and Jéhan Òsanyìn, lands somewhere in the middle. (Incidentally, the multi-talented Òsanyìn gave an excellent performance on stage in The Curious Incident.)
In The Book Club Play, prim and composed editor Ana hosts a book club that, for all it looks like a friendly social gathering, is something of an enforced social order with barely-buried secrets bumping around. But for some reason, Ana happily invites a renowned documentary filmmaker in to record everything from a creepy camera in the wall, under the auspices of showing the secrets of creating a lasting book club. Predictably, things get messy.
The club’s fearless leader begins to lose control of the group when her fellow group members, who she’s not used to challenges from, begin to assert their own views of how things should go. Incremental departures — like nominating a low-brow book choice, or inviting a new trial member without the usual thorough vetting process, or (gasp) providing a too-simple tie-in dinner — all shift her just enough off kilter that she begins to feel things spinning out of control. Her safe haven is quickly becoming her worst nightmare.
It’s dramatic, of course, and it’s supposed to be. But for me, both the story and the staging end up feeling like a soap opera, which made things hard to get into.
The show does have some strong points. Inherent to the story itself, there’s the theme of defining culture: What makes a given work “literature,” or a thing or person “cultured”? Is so-called culture primarily for enlightenment, or for entertainment? As the club selections dip from more traditional literary classics to Tarzan and Twilight, members scrap over what belongs; and the feud between club leader Ana and a college professor of literature adds an intriguing slant.
As to the staging, Village has drawn a strong cast here, as it tends to do. All six cast members — Maya Burton, Marquicia Dominguez, Nik Doner, Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Lauren Paris, and Arlando Smith — shine individually and together in their significant stage time. In particular, Dominguez as Ana clearly runs the show, and it was fun to see them in such an erudite boss of a role; and Burton as Lily provides a worthy — and often unintentional — adversary to Ana’s tight ship. Sharp costume design by Maggie Carrido Adams helps define the characters and their quirks.
But the production has some question marks too. Again, part is in the plot — it, like a soap opera, is too predictable; and whether it’s the script or the production, some things feel way too dramatized, like the big reveal! (not so much) of the second act.
The core problem, I think, isn’t really the production team’s fault. It’s that the story doesn’t make much sense for Village’s enormous stage. It’s a book club, comprised of a small group, and set entirely in a living room. To make the set fit the space, designer Catherine Cornell blew up the living room to epic, high-ceilinged, mansion-sized proportions. The clean-lined, enormous room oozes with the sheen of new money. But who are they again? And where? Nothing in the story demands this level of opulence; and indeed, it doesn’t really make any sense to house the story in it.
The Book Club Play enjoys strong acting from a well-rounded cast, and sets up some interesting discussion points around how we value literature and in what forms. The cast here creates some likable, entertaining characters, who I’d probably like to hang out with — just not all together.
The Book Club Play runs through 4/3 at Village Theatre in Issaquah; it then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center (in downtown Everett) and runs 4/8-5/1. Tickets up to $77, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility notes: $20 rush tickets for Section B seats available to all, one hour before showtime, at all shows; pay-what-you-choose tickets available to all at certain performances. See details here. (PWYC Issaquah dates: 3/12 matinee, 3/17 matinee, 3/23 night, 3/26 night. Everett dates: 4/16 matinee, 4/21 matinee, 4/27 night, 4/30 night.)
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.