Cakewalk at The Blyth Festival
The mission of the Blyth Festival in tiny Blyth, Ontario, is to produce new Canadian work on rural themes. That might seem a tough nut to crack, but they’ve been at it successfully for 45 years now and the quality of the plays I’ve seen has been remarkable.
Not everything they produce is new. They regularly remount productions from earlier years that have stood the test of time. A case in point is Cakewalk, a very funny, old-fashioned, family-friendly comedy by Colleen Curran from 1984. It was Ms. Curran’s first professionally produced play and it is a remarkably solid piece for a tyro playwright.
Director Kelli Fox has wisely chosen not to update the play. A medley of pop hits from the era (courtesy of sound designer Verne Good) ushers us back to 1984 at the Canada Day celebration of a small Ontario town. The setting is a basement room where five of the fifteen contestants in the best cake competition will be sequestered awaiting the call for the judging.
Curran has assembled an assortment of characters that opens up great comic possibilities. For starters, there’s Vivien Leigh Cleary (Rachel Jones), a nun, somewhat uncertain in her vocation, who has come to the competition in mufti, feeling that appearing in her habit might draw unwanted attention and asking her best friend to keep her “secret identity” secret. That friend, Martha (Rebecca Auerbach), runs a new-fangled healthy food restaurant called Heaven on Earth with her draft-dodging American husband; she is eager to have kids but despairs of ever being able to conceive. Ruby (Catherine Fitch), the wife of a tow truck operator who has set a goal of towing every car in town, shows up in her Cub Scout den mother uniform, convinced it will win the judges’ sympathy. Augusta (Caroline Gillis) has decided to enter the three-tiered cake she has created for next day’s wedding of her daughter, Tiffany (Lucy Hill), who is most definitely not amused. Finally there is Taylor (Nathan Howe), a painfully inept but ever so sweet archaeologist who is the sole man to enter a cake in the competition. He’s single and looking for love. No extra points for guessing who he falls for.
The plot careens along its zany course as Ruby, desperate to win, begins sabotaging other contestants’ cakes, attempts to get Martha disqualified, and finally makes cakes mysteriously disappear. Meanwhile, Augusta is determined to keep the wedding cake from the grasp of daughter Tiffany who is equally determined to claim it lest the surprise on her wedding day be spoiled. Of course, Taylor and Vivien fall hopelessly in love the moment they set eyes on one another, a totally unbelievable moment that the actors and director manage to make utterly believable.
The cast, many of them longtime Blyth veterans, is terrific. Catherine Fitch, who I love every time I rewatch Slings and Arrows, makes a delightfully bitchy villain of Ruby. Caroline Gillis (Slings and Arrows again) is spot on as the mother saddled with an impossible daughter and Lucy Hill as that daughter is a delicious bit of overwrought crumpet. Rebecca Auerbach creates an utterly sympathetic Martha. Rachel Jones does a masterful job of tiptoeing through the minefield of playing a nun in the throes of first love; she is utterly charming and very funny. Nathan Howe, who was so enjoyable as an amiable doofus in last season’s Wing Night at the Boot, is just as engaging and loveable this time around. At play’s end we feel genuinely pleased that he and Leigh have found one another.
Is Cakewalk perfect? Of course not, but in a way that’s beside the point. There is so much good humor and heartfelt humanity in this piece that minor flaws become part of its charm. This is the sort of play that audiences love but that hoity-toity New York critics would hate; it’s New York’s loss. Sure, Director Fox might have dialed back some of the performances, but there are times when, as Mick Jagger so sagely observed, too much is never enough. As designer, Laura Gardner, works wonders with what is obviously a limited budget, the bulk of which must have gone into Tiffany’s deliriously tacky wedding gown.
The Blyth Festival is one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets, at least for American visitors. I would urge my compatriots who are heading anywhere near the Canadian shores of Lake Huron to seek out this gem. And if you need further encouragement, the smashing Cowbell Brewery and restaurant is on the edge of town.
Cakewalk plays through August 10, 2019
(Illustration courtesy of The Blyth Festival.)
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0