Stage Review: Not much of a “Cakewalk”

An air of anachronism hangs over the ZSC production of Cakewalk, particularly regarding its treatment of racial and social issues.

Cakewalk by Colleen Curran. Directed by David M. Miller. Staged by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA through March 19.

The cast of the Zeitgeist Stage Company production of "Cakewalk."

The cast of the Zeitgeist Stage Company production of “Cakewalk.”

By Kamela Dolinova

One of the challenges for an artistic director is to pick plays that fit the moment just right. The possibilities are plentiful: you might want, as Zeitgeist Stage Company did in its last season, to produce a harrowing Bent, or, as director David Miller explains in the Cakewalk program, to choose something light “to offset the cabin fever” brought on by Boston winters. (Though cases of cabin fever have been pretty scarce this year.) The point is that it is always critical to ask an essential question: why produce this play now?

Cakewalk was an early success 1n 1984 for Canadian playwright Colleen Curran, a longtime colleague of Miller’s. But this production feels as if the script is stuck in a certain time and place, leaving you wondering about its relevance. It could be that the comedy has not aged well. Certainly the ZSC production, in spite of a very strong and generally charming cast, doesn’t do enough to freshen the material up for 2016. An air of anachronism hangs over the evening, particularly regarding its treatment of racial and social issues.

The play takes place in one room: the basement waiting area of a country inn where the annual Fourth of July Cakewalk is about to take place – not a dance, but a baking competition, in which the housewives of a small town present their best confections to a panel of judges for prizes. We are told by the event’s radio announcer that it is 1984, though the French’s-mustard-yellow kitchen of the inn appears to have been decorated in the ’70s. (The text tells us the inn is much older than that.) The culture outside seems to belong to an even more bygone era. The house music anchors us in time — there’s plenty of Cyndi Lauper and Yes — but the crises the characters face feel oddly dated.

The contestants are Leigh (Victoria George), a nun posing as a lay person for a day in an attempt to win a trip to Lourdes for her Mother Superior; Martha (Aina Adler), an ex-hippie who runs the local crunchy cafe; Ruby (Kelley Estes), a bitter Cub Scout den mother and ex-twirler who will do anything to win; Augusta (Maureen Adduci), a self-actualizing mother of the bride who is entering her daughter’s elaborate wedding cake in the contest; and Taylor (Matt Fagerberg), the one male contestant, an archeologist who is so absent-minded he can barely get his cake out of his car. Add Tiffany (Ashley Risteen), the perky blonde bride who tries to take her cake back between sets of tennis and obsessive cake-sniffing, and the stage is set for a door-slamming farce that may or may not end with faces covered in frosting.

The problem is that the script’s potential to be a rollicking, fast-paced romp — full of insane outbursts, mistaken identities, petty grievances, and exaggerated characters — is never realized. A few of the performers seem to think they are in a wild comedy: the fantastically expressive Risteen, mugging and strutting and going into tantrums when she doesn’t get her way and, to a lesser extent, Fagerberg, whose doddering, understated uber-geek is so lovable, his delivery of his lines so well-timed, that the character doesn’t seem quite real. Also on the preposterous side is Estes, whose Ruby is so valiantly hateful that I began to wish the character didn’t have so appear so frequently. The character is a cookie-cutter cut-out, an evil witch designed to disrupt everything. She gets close to redemption – or at least audience sympathy – several times before the playwright denies her. In short: the figure belongs in a farce.

In the other play – the naturalistic half the rest of the cast members are acting in – George plays Leigh for the sweet, patient Sister she is, displaying the requisite inner turmoil as she tries to referee the proceedings while falling in love with the archaeologist. Meanwhile Adler, a commanding Martha, throws her heart around with an utterly compelling reality. Finally, the marvelous Adduci brings a dignity to Augusta that makes you root for her, especially given how over-the-top awful her daughter Tiffany is. There are two competing dramatic worlds here; the actors seem to have selected which realm they want their character to inhabit. Director David Miller lets each actor stay in his or her orbit.

Complicating the issue of verisimilitude is the production’s ‘race-blind’ casting. The first actor to appear on stage is a woman of color, and so is the third person to appear. That is terrific to see, but then the play begins to touch on certain prejudices and the casting becomes somewhat confusing — it alternately intensified racial prejudices while it seemed to ignore them. For example, Victoria George, who plays Vivien Leigh Cleary, is a woman of color who might be understood to be an African American. Her character repeatedly says that she is Irish and that her mother was obsessed with Gone With The Wind. That explains the character’s name, but would an African American mother be so uncritically obsessed with the Civil War film that she would name her daughter after Vivien Leigh?

Things get stranger. In the world of the play, where people are still being accused of being draft-dodgers and living with your partner before marriage is condemned as moral turpitude, it is hard to imagine that there would be no remarks, at all, about Leigh’s race. Ruby’s character is so vicious that it is inexplicable that she would miss an opportunity to comment on it. In other moments, Ruby fights with Martha – played by Adler, another actor of color – and says things like “That’s the problem with you people” and “Minorities are always doing those kinds of things.” In the text, presumably, Martha is meant to be white, and Ruby’s comments refer to Martha’s politics and personal values, not her skin color. But given the context — the actor playing the part — Ruby’s comments range from the ignorant to the hateful. This aggression would be provocative if there was any consciousness of race in the production; instead, we get a baffling mixture of (possible?) racial tension and a sense that it doesn’t exist.

Of course, a cakewalk is a style of dance originated by Southern blacks on slave plantations, created as a means of mocking the high manners of their white masters. Taylor mentions at one point that the cakewalk they are participating in is a reversal of the original cakewalks; in the beginning, a cake was the reward for the best dancers. The cakes weren’t judged. The legacy of slave plantations, minstrel shows, blackface, exploitation, and rebellion doesn’t enter into the discussion. Apparently, as far as Curran is concerned, the word cakewalk has nothing to do with black people or their history. And that innocent attitude poses considerable challenges when you include people of color in a production of a very white play. These problems are not overcome in this at times uncomfortable, unevenly-paced production of a comedy that entertains but doesn’t take the cake.

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.

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