Tall Tales: “The Cake” at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company, A Review

Tall Tales: “The Cake” at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company, A Review

“The Cake” is now up at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company. The run is through October 13. Our Denver theater critic, award-winning author Mark Stevens, reviews the production. Tickets here.

Emma Messenger as Della and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Macy. Courtesy, Curious Theatre Company.

A gay couple wants to order a wedding cake from a cake shop and the owner turns them down.

Heard that one before?

The essence of Bekah Brunstetter’s play “The Cake,” currently being staged by the Curious Theatre Company, uses the essential ingredients of Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and its hot-button set-up. The general framework is familiar, but don’t head to “The Cake” thinking the play re-litigates the legal battle. In fact, the play was written long before the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision over the highly-watched case.

The biggest difference? The one that gives “The Cake” its own flair? The would-be cake buyer and the cake shop owner know each other; the soon-to-be bride and the cake shop owner were best friends before the mother died.

In other words, “The Cake” is not a theatrical version of a Harvard Law Review analysis of the pros and cons of this particular constitutional fight (a fight that even the U.S. Supreme Court decided only on a partial basis).

“The Cake” draws its politics from the personal, which are the result of Brustetter’s particular character choices.

At The Curious Theatre Company, as directed by Chip Walton, “The Cake” is a many-layered story that concerns itself primarily with the delicate and changing relationship between cake shop owner Della and her late friend’s daughter, Jen. Della knew Jen as “Jenny” before she moved to New York. Now, Jen is back in North Carolina now, with dreams of a “fairy tale” wedding to her partner, Macy.

Macy pushes Jen to come clean to Della about their relationship. Reticent to disclose all about her lesbian self at first, Jen is willing to cut the locals some slack when it comes to their prejudices. Jen even dreams of making her home with Macy in the town where she grew up. You can practically feel Macy’s skin crawl at the mere suggestion.

The fourth of four on-stage characters is Della’s husband Tim, who encourages Della to hold the line and not let her personal feelings for Jen override what the Bible, he claims, forbids.

The final “character” is the off-stage voice of the announcer for The Great American Baking Show, a popular “reality” series that has cast Della as a contestant. The Voice of God announcer alternately goads and chides Della in these daydream sequences; she is due to head off for the taping in a few short weeks and her imagination runs wild in these brief – and often hilarious, interludes.

With potential national exposure for Della in the offing, the main tension of “The Cake” is between Della and Jen, but the space between them is softened by their history. The sharper angles come, initially, from Macy and Tim.

Jada Suzanne Dixon, a Curious regular with amazing range, plays Macy with strident zeal, even if the lines she is given, particularly as she confronts Della, seem too in-your-face. Or natural. As Jen, Alaina Beth Reel shows us both sides of her very-mixed-bag feelings over the issue. Thanks to both Reel and Dixon, Jen’s relationship with Macy is touching and genuine.

Michael Morgan’s Tim is plenty believable with his strict views on gay marriage and all things Brooklyn, where Jen and Macy now live. But Emma Messenger (Della) is given the part that involves the most soul searching. And skin baring. What might be considered the “whip cream scene” and the “mashed potato scene” are wacky and outrageous.

The in-depth peek into Tim and Della’s attempts to rekindle their sexual chemistry seemed jarring and off the essential point, which is Della’s right to pick and choose customers in a public business based on her religious beliefs. Kudos to Messenger, who is stellar as Paula Dean-esque Della, and to Morgan taking on these scenes with fearless aplomb. But as slightly salacious and giggle-inducing scenes seemed to diffuse any chance for “The Cake” to pack a serious wallop.

The end, too, was curious and head-scratching with too much left unexplained. Given all the opportunities that “The Cake” gives to these four characters to reveal their inner feelings, the resolution fell flat. If there are no clean edges when it comes to human nature, fine. But the actions should follow opinions as people change.

“The Cake” cares more about shared humanity than dividing lines. Again, fine. Jen and Della both appear to pay a price for sticking to their guns but then, all of a sudden, there is cake? The play gives Della the opportunity to justify her bigotry and doesn’t really make her pay. The end is curiously unsatisfying and, alas, low-cal.

More about Mark Stevens:

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent.

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts, but he’s been a Coloradoan since 1980.

Mark has worked as a print reporter, ((Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News), national news television producer, (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour) and school district communicator. He’s now laboring in the new economy, listed under “s” for self-employed public relations exec.

Mark has published four Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust”(2007), “Buried by the Roan” (2011), “Trapline” (2014) and “Lake of Fire” (2015).  “Trapline” won the Colorado Book Award.  The fifth book, “The Melancholy Howl,” is due out in late 2018.

For more about Mark, check out his website.

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