Jason Tamborini and Aria Velz on what takes the cake in ‘The Cake’

As Prologue's resplendent production transfers to NextStop, the designer and director share their winning recipe for authenticity and astonishment.

Bekah Brunstetter’s play The Cake was inspired by the 2018 Supreme Court case involving a baker who refused on account of Christian beliefs to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple — but if you go see Prologue Theatre’s resplendent production expecting an argument between legal briefs and religious creeds, you’ll be in for a big surprise. Quite a few surprises, actually. The two biggies for me were the design of the show and the main character, Della — a baker who declines to bake a wedding cake for two women on what she believes are religious grounds.

The realistic set, Della’s bake shop, is amazing; it literally looks good enough to eat. The only thing that could have added to its authenticity is if the aroma of baking cupcakes had wafted over the audience and we were invited to taste the delicacies in the display case.

In both the set design by Jason Tamborini and the story arc of Della, I was impressed by two fascinatingly related qualities: authenticity and astonishment. And those qualities were the topic of a recent Zoom conversation I had with Jason and Aria Velz, who directed the show.

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Jason, that set is a major undertaking for a small theater. What were you thinking?

Jason: Yes, it was a major undertaking! I’m a firm believer in trying to give as much realism as possible to invite the audience in so that they’re not having to spend their mental energy on figuring out what the space is, how to feel inside of it.

Aria and I talked a lot early on about the specific vibe that the cake shop should give. It should feel comfortable, it should feel like home, because for Della, it really is her second home. It’s where she lives and works and plays, and it should be an extension of her that we see.

‘The Cake’ set. Design by Jason Tamborini. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Aria, what were your and Jason’s conversations concerning the authenticity of that set?

Aria: We were looking at set designs for other productions, and a lot of them felt too modern, too chic, drenched in really bright colors, and we were going for how do we make it feel very inviting, a place that people would like. Della herself is extremely warm and inviting. She’s incredibly nice and accommodating to people. That’s the first impression we get from her and the first impression we get from her bakery.

There are two scenic reveals in the show that genuinely bowled me over. I’m pretty sure I gasped. I’m reluctant to spoil anyone else’s surprise but I want to ask you what audience reaction to those reveals has been like.

Aria: When I was in tech I realized the audience isn’t going to realize that there’s more to this space, and it’s been very delightful to watch audiences be surprised. That’s a testament to Jason’s design and the build quality that you see. It looks incredibly realistic. It looks beautifully made. And then there are these delightful surprises — like, whoa, there is more to this play than what I see right in front of me!

It really worked. The character of Della and this inviting space tell us a lot about each other. And Nicole Halmos’ performance — from Della’s very first speech about the pleasures of baked goods — is just a marvel of nuance, depth, and desire to please.

Nicole Halmos as Della in ‘The Cake.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Aria, what in particular about the character were you looking for when you cast the role?

Aria: The Cake is Della’s story, so Della had to be someone who was incredibly charming and incredibly inviting and someone who was also able to balance going through really complicated internal musings about ethics and about love and about family while also bringing a lot of levity to it. The Cake talks about heavy topics, but it’s a very funny play. So in casting, the most important thing was who can be dynamic and charming and bring us on the journey? And immediately when Nicole came in, we were like, Got it, we’re good. That was my biggest concern in casting and she came in and killed it.

She did. And the originality in that character and the quality of her performance are not easy to convey to someone who hasn’t yet seen the show.

For me, the biggest surprise about the play was that it’s so much about Della’s heterosexuality. I expected a play about gay rights but it’s also about straight plights. There’s a very sensitive disclosure of Della’s unhappy erotic impasse with her husband, Tim, and there’s a story arc about their sexual relationship — especially her feeling loved but not desired — that I totally was not expecting.

Aria, would you share your thoughts about that aspect of the play and how you approached it in rehearsal?

Aria: Yeah, absolutely. You come into this play and you think it’s going to be about Della wrestling with the notion of Jen, a young woman she almost raised, being gay, but really it brings up feelings about the inadequacy in Della’s relationship because she sees in Jen and Macy’s relationship a level of love and intimacy and care and desire. Even though it’s a gay relationship Della does not approve of, there’s something about it that completely changes her perspective about her own relationship with her husband, Tim. So when we were approaching that aspect of her storyline, a major thing was that we needed to really work Jen and Macy’s relationship to be sure that there is something between them that Della sees is lacking in hers.

Sabrina Lynne Sawyer (Macy) and Tara Forseth (Jen) in The Cake.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

And Nicole is just such an amazing performer. Without her needing much text, we are able to see her internalize and process moments of going from a scene in which she saw the way Jen and Macy looked at each other to the next scene where she and Tim are barely kissing each other on the cheek — and finding that huge gap.

There’s a hilarious and heartbreaking scene where we see Della act out for Tim what she hopes will rekindle their spark. It involves partial nudity. It’s comic and sad at the same time — we are amused by her moxie and touched by her desperation. Here is a married woman whose sexual expression and self-esteem are bound up in one man — they did the one-man-and-one-woman thing by the good book — and it’s not working. The pathos is profound.

Aria, how did you approach and rehearse that scene? How did you find the astonishing emotional authenticity in it?

Aria: It was really a lot of in-depth conversations about marriage, about being in a relationship for a long time — and without even realizing, watching that intimacy slowly fade away, and how painful and how terrifying it must be. Della does not even realize that that’s happened until she has that revelation [of seeing Jen and Macy’s relationship]. So her trying to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna take matters into my own hands and bring it back” is devastating because she’s doing something spontaneous and out of love and out of affection that is not being received.

Tim has not had that revelation. Tim hasn’t thought about this in a while, and that comes from a place of pain. So we were trying to balance Della’s and Tim’s level of vulnerability and how Della is immediately expressing it, but how Tim has really suppressed it.

Nicole Halmos as Della and Sam Lunay as Tim in ‘The Cake.’ Photo by DJ Photography.

I know at Prologue you’re into starting conversations, and I want to bring you into one that’s been going on in my head since I came out of the theater. What I’d like to share is some speculation — inspired by your production — about what seems to me is the hidden-in-plain-sight significance of the play.

For decades among evangelical Christians, there have been efforts to shore up heterosexuality in marriage. The gospel of hot sex has been preached to many by prominent figures such as Marabel Morgan, who in the 1970s in her book The Total Woman famously advised wives to greet their husbands at the door naked wearing only Saran Wrap. Brunstetter, it seems to me, is not only referencing the widespread petering out of heterosexuality in marriage; she’s suggesting that Christian homophobia has been promulgated as a misguided marital aid — as if Christian anti-queer animus might be, in their twisted wishful thinking, a protection against the insecurity that they experience in their heterosexual relationships.

Aria: Yeah, we did talk about what sect are Della and Tim, and we did come up with this idea that perhaps Della joined Tim’s church and that Tim was a lot more religious and Evangelical than Della was. And so from there we talked about what is their relationship with sex? They probably had a lot of sex very early on in their relationship, and it was all very happy. And it was really them realizing they couldn’t have children that transformed their relationship. Macy references that later when she says, Well, did you procreate? Like if you didn’t, then what is your marriage for? Like sex has an end goal that you have to work toward.

And if that end goal is not being met, then there’s no point in it, and Della and Tim have lost the joy in it. They’ve lost the goal in it. So I think that’s like a cool and interesting point because evangelical groups are so sex-negative in so many ways — but very specifically within the context of marriage, they’re like, Go for it. Do it. But in even any slight deviation from that, you shouldn’t be able to find the pleasure and joy in it.

Jason, when you first saw The Cake at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, what hit you about the play that made you want to program it?

Jason: For me when I walked out of the play, there was this thought and feeling, What was this really about? Was it built off of a court case where a baker didn’t want to make a cake? Or was it more about showcasing similarities between heterosexual and homosexual marriage? The word marriage means something so specific and so special that it needs to only be between a man and a woman, says the church. Or is it something more?

The thing that hit me most, though, sitting through the play and then sitting with it afterward, was the journey that these four very different people who come from different places and have different thoughts and feelings and different beliefs, the journey that they go on together — and how one person’s growth also helps along the journey of another.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Cake presented by Prologue Theatre in association with NexStop Theatre Company will play from March 10 to April 2, 2023, at NextStop Theatre Company, ⁠269 Sunset Park Drive in Herndon, VA. Tickets ($45) are available online or by calling the box office at (703) 481-5930.

The program for The Cake is online here.

COVID Safety at Next Stop: Masks are required for all patrons inside the building unless actively eating or drinking. If a patron does not have a mask, disposable masks will be available for any and all guests upon request. Patrons who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted or asked to leave the theater. NextStop’s complete COVID-19 Health & Safety Measures are here.

The Cake presented by Prologue Theatre in association with NextStop Theatre Company played February 2 through 26, 2023, at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC.

Jason Tamborini is the Founding Artistic Director of Prologue Theatre. He is a professional director, actor, designer, and technical director who has worked in the DC area for the past 10 years. His professional credits include World Builders, Recent Tragic Events, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, The Explorers Club, and Grand Concourse for Prologue Theatre as well as work locally with a number of theaters. He spent nearly 10 years teaching drama and language arts in public high schools (G. C. Marshall HS, Wellesley HS) prior to founding Prologue. He received his BFA in Theatre Performance from Niagara University and his MA in Theatre Education from Emerson College.

Aria Velz is a director, dramaturg, sound designer, and teaching artist in the DC area. She is currently Associate Artistic Director of NextStop Theatre Company.

‘The Cake’ at Prologue Theatre comes with baked-in clichés (review by Jakob Cansler, February 6, 2023)

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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