In 2017, a Colorado baker found himself in front of the US Supreme Court after refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. Supporters and opponents of the couple’s lawsuit took to their various media platforms, propelling the suit into a viral national dilemma characterized by polarized opinions and vicious rhetoric, on both sides. It is these dialogues of divide, in an increasingly divided nation, that serves as the setting and theme of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake--a delectable creation that gets to the ooey gooey center of our nation’s problems, even if its frosting is a little too sweet.
The frosting, in this case, is Brunstetter’s opening moments, and the initial glimpse of our main rivals, a god-loving, small-town baker named Della (Tara Mallen), and a liberal New York native, Macy (Krystel McNeil). In their first scene together, almost every line is peppered with a Biblical quote or a diatribe about gluten’s negative effects, to the extent that they initially manifest as caricatures. As the play develops, though, so does its depth.
Della, in homage to the now infamous Colorado baker, grapples with her choice not to bake a cake for Macy and Jen’s (Tuckie White) wedding. Della’s decision proves more tenuous than what we know of the real-life narrative that served as the play’s inspiration; a childless woman herself, Della was best friends with Jen’s mother and played a major part of Jen’s childhood. Now, torn between Jen’s queerness and her anti-gay religious beliefs, Della faces a challenge more intimidating than competing on The Great American Baking Show.
The play’s goal, though, is not to condemn Della but rather to explore the tension between such polarized views when individuals’ tendencies turned toward dismissal instead of discussion. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that it’s about sympathizing with or learning to ‘tolerate’ bigotry either--instead, it encourages us to probe into these predisposed positions, in others and in ourselves, to incite change. It is in these instances that The Cake, and the wonderful cast in Rivendell's production, truly shine.
In a scene between Macy and Jen, for instance, the two women express their feelings of being torn between various worlds; they discuss how systems of belief, skin color, sex, sexual preference, etc. affect one’s sense of self, one’s ability to connect with others, one’s capacity to be accepted. Nuanced conversations like these that elevate the play, transforming it from a story of intolerance to one of deeper significance about internalized biases and how their effect, and the palpable mix of chemistry and pain White and McNeil display makes it all the more powerful.
On Della’s end, we witness her grappling with the origins of her beliefs--do they come from her, or are they now dictated by her husband Tim (Keith Kupferer), a loving but controlling man. Both Mallen and Kupferer offer tremendous performances as they struggle to communicate and to understand, emotionally and physically, each other.
Other than a few moments that pander a bit too much, the play is one that highlights a complex issue often unheard under the rumble of angry voices. With a wonderful set (compliments of Arnel Sancianco), a talented cast, and a relevant script, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Cake is worth every bite.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Cake continues at Rivendell Ensemble Theatre through May 20. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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