Friday, March 4, 2016

Zeitgeist Serves Up Small Town Life with ‘Cakewalk’ (4 Stars) By Michael Hoban

Cakewalk - Written by Colleen Curran. Directed by David J. Miller. Scenic Design by David Miller; Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design by J. Jumbelic; Costume Design by Jess Huang. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston through March 19.

The descriptive phrase “light and fluffy” is not one that most people would associate with Zeitgeist Stage Company and director David Miller, but with the Cakewalk, the company takes on a straight comedy and delivers an entertaining production – with nary a social message in sight. Zeitgeist and Miller have been responsible for some of the most powerful productions in local theater in recent years, including the brilliantly brutal Punk Rock in 2013, last year’s Bent (which won the IRNE Award for Best Play and Best Director – Fringe) and this past fall’s Boys in the Band. But with ‘Cakewalk’, a lighthearted comedy about a small town cake baking contest, Zeitgeist allows us to walk out of the theater with a smile rather than an emotionally challenged psyche. 

Cakewalk is essentially an edgier version of Prairie Home Companion with a rural Vermont town standing in for Lake Woebegon and its denizens. It’s the Fourth of July, 1984 and in addition to the parade and pet costume contest, there’s the annual Cakewalk, where contestants vie for a trip to Paris, awarded to the baker with the most appealing confection. The entire play is set in the kitchen of quaint country inn, where contestants eagerly wait for the judging to begin while exchanging the weirdness of small town living. 

There’s Sister Vivien Leigh Cleary, a nun questioning her dedication to the convent life; Martha, her best friend and operator of the Heaven On Earth organic café, who set the local gossip mill atwitter by living with her husband before getting married; Ruby Abel, an overzealous den mother fueled by a lifetime of regret that will do anything to win; Taylor Abbott, the directionally challenged archeologist; and Augusta Connors Hancock, a wealthy matron who decides to finally “do something for herself” by unfathomably entering her daughter Tiffany’s wedding cake in the contest – which may not be such a bad idea, given that Tiffany hasn’t a clue as to why she’s getting married – or much else for that matter. 

There is some clever writing in Curran’s work (“some have pettiness thrust upon them”), and there are lots of adroit tricks with names (all of the women in Ruby’s family are named after gems – which they clearly are not) that provide unexpected laughs. The performances are generally very good, anchored by the angelic Victoria George as the conflicted nun and a very funny turn by Matt Fagerberg as the addled archeologist. Aina Adler gives a heartfelt performance as the counter-culture restaurant owner (who may have more than a cake in the oven), and her barbed exchanges with the deranged Ruby are the basis for any semblance of dramatic tension in this comedy. 

As Ruby, Kelley Estes takes her character from a mere annoying shrew to someone who is borderline clinically disturbed – to great comic effect. Ruby’s lifetime of disappointments (which we learn about in a monologue, complete with pantomimed baton twirling) has transformed her from what would have normally been a neighborhood busybody to someone who looks like they’ll eventually end up as a headshaking story on the six o’clock news. Maureen Adduci and Ashley Risteen are effective as the self-centered mother and daughter team who bicker over the appropriate role of the wedding cake in their respective lives. 

In the end, ‘Cakewalk’ is a cute little charmer, but those hoping for a little more grit from Zeitgeist will have to wait until the spring for A Great Wilderness – the gay conversion therapy drama from Samuel Hunter, who gave us the The Whale (of which Speakeasy Stage produced a compelling production in 2014). For more info, go to: