They seem like such nice ladies. Well, most of them, anyway. A small group of older women meet up in a quaint house to show off and share their cakes, pies and muffins. But what’s with the secret password to open the door? “Power to the people” followed by “Death to the pigs”? Well, actually, considering that this is happening in Berkeley, that’s not so strange either.
These are the little old ladies of the Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self-Defense, and what they’re really cooking up is resistance to the “crypto-fascist” corporate surveillance state (“Amerika...with a k,” as they keep saying) by any means necessary. It’s just that the means they’ve chosen are bake sales to support radical causes.
Here too, that's not exactly far-fetched, but rest assured, the premise eventually plummets into absurdity in Recipe, the latest new play by Central Works — the 45th world premiere for a company that does nothing but collaboratively developed new works. Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan is no stranger to group playmaking as longtime head writer of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which makes all its decisions as a collective. Political satire is the SFMT’s stock in trade, and it’s no surprise that it’s a prominent ingredient in Sullivan’s new play, too.
The premise is pretty thin. After decades of covert cookery, the circle has sent out a press release to announce that they’re doing...something, but they’d prefer to be vague about the details. So, you may well ask, why’d they send out the press release? In any case, a reporter has come around, a veteran turned radio political commentator. As played by Sullivan’s fellow Mime Troupe member (and wife) Velina Brown, Sgt. Diane Robeson is a pleasant if slightly disorganized interviewer who keeps getting interrupted by suspicious-sounding phone calls (her ring tone, of course, is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”). The more of these calls she receives, with her surreptitiously murmuring inane things that sound a lot like code, the more suspicious the baking circle gets. Is someone baking up...some treachery?
Phoebe Moyer seems every inch the sweet grandmotherly type as host Lillian, and the small stage area in the Berkeley City Club is elegantly set with quaint furnishings in Central Works co-director Gary Graves’ staging (there's even a rotary phone). Lynne Soffer is more prickly as Lillian’s partner Helen, but that’s nothing compared to Tamar Cohn’s paranoid and fierce Ruth, who keeps rummaging around in her purse for a weapon whenever someone makes her angry, which is often. Company co-director Jan Zvaifler’s Janice is a laid-back ex-hippie whose every amusingly rambling story involves somebody she used to sleep with.
There are some good lines from the start (“Muffins are just little lies for people who can’t accept that they’re eating cake for breakfast”), but the play begins slowly and takes a while to get going, in part because the volatile Ruth doesn’t arrive to shake things up until fairly late in the first act. It’s a two-hour show with intermission, and the second act is much stronger than the first, much funnier and at times even suspenseful. (Previously used mostly for rhapsodic music whenever Diane takes a bite of the baked goods, sound designer Gregory Scharpen’s dramatic underscoring gets a workout toward the end.) The story keeps taking wild twists and turns, some dramatic and most (quite intentionally) ridiculous.
Many things in Recipe don’t quite come together. A running gag about Helen insisting that a lavender plant isn’t hers never becomes particularly humorous or fathomable. The question of how the group raised so much money with cakes is often asked but never answered. And when secrets are finally revealed, the motivation behind the covert activity doesn’t make much sense. But amid the radical ravings are hidden some eloquent observations about what fascism really means that just may hit home. And the latter half of the play is entertaining enough that the rest of the show can get away with being half baked.
Central Works' Recipe runs through Nov. 23, 2014 at Berkeley City Club. For tickets and information, visit centralworks.org.
Photo by Jim Norrena.