It's hard to describe a play about a headstrong baker without using food metaphors, and doubly hard to talk about the new historical comedy featuring said baker without using Betty Crocker marketing vocabulary: sweet, fluffy, creamy, and so forth. But Melynda Kiring's Quadrille, now in its world premiere at CTA Crossroads Theatre in Walnut Creek, simply begs for the Julia Child treatment. Like all the kinds of love portrayed, it's hard to resist.
Kiring called Quadrille "so romantic it doesn't know what to do with itself." In the ten years it took her to write, it started as a "short story, then it tried to be a musical and then it realized it wasn't, and then it became what it is now, which is a fanciful play." Romantic and fanciful, yes. The story of two star-crossed couples who must overcome convention, poor communication, and a chocolate-spinach pie to find true love lands just this side of fairytale territory. As ingenue Lilianne describes her idea of love in the prologue: "With the invisible touch of a sparkling fairy's wand, I will be taken care of." Good luck with that, honey, Kiring says: To be worthy of love, you still have to learn to care for yourself.
Just as they believe in different things ("love, myself, others, glory"), all four main characters have idiosyncratic ideas of romance, and will need to make some adjustments to accommodate the real thing. Kiring addresses class and fantasy issues without being pedantic. Instead, in addition to the sassy baker (also played by Kiring), we get a lonely nobleman, an honor-mad son of a knight, his restless beloved, and a seemingly endless stream of teacakes. The older nobleman takes both of the women into his home, but who will fall for whom? And when things get complicated, who will rescue whom, and under what pretenses? Will the women's plot work? How about the male counterplot? And is codfish pie really that nasty?
Kiring is lovely as the mischievous, self-reliant Myrna, the only woman in the village who owns her own shop. She has a rich and varied voice, expressive hands, and an overflowing warmth and generosity. One of the best moments is hers: Joshua asks Myrna to describe herself, and she uses food analogies for her various parts eyes the color of the taste of hot chocolate and so on, culminating in her rather ruefully assessing her plump figure and calling herself a layer cake. It should be unbearably saccharine, but it isn't. For his part, Randy Anger plays Joshua with great innocence and dignity. A man shielded from the world since age four, Joshua is courtly, proper, and unspeakably lonely.
He's also blind. Kiring either loves someone sight-impaired or did her homework she includes details that suggest a familarity with the challenges, most notably what happens when you rearrange the furniture. And while there are moments where Joshua's blindness provides comedic ballast, there's nothing mean-spirited in it. He gets the last laugh as often as not especially in one of the more unusual sword fights you'll ever see staged.
Joshua's nemesis is hot-headed Nicholas, dashing and arrogant. He routinely uses "little" to describe his beloved Lilianne, from her heart to her head. Upon finding her reading up on wildflowers, he declares, "The only flora you need to examine is that which I give you." He's so determined to win glory that he'll postpone marrying her until it's too late. He also has that bizarre inescapable nobleman logic down: "It's obvious that this lady loves you, sir, or she wouldn't have sent for me to kill you." David Neufeld and Megan Briggs have good chemistry as Nicholas and Lilianne, and while their story isn't as immediately engaging as that of Myrna and Joshua, it's still sweet.
Some choices don't work as well, most notably having Joshua's man Henderson announce the scene changes ("Act One, Scene Ten: Myrna's Bakery"); it's completely unnecessary, and bogs things down. The denouement of Lilianne and Nicholas' story seems a little forced; their last dialogue could be streamlined. Finally and this has nothing to do with art the theater is seriously missing a trick in not selling pastries at intermission. After all the talk of perfect corn muffins and scrumptious teacakes, Crossroads would stand to make a killing.
Nitpicks aside, this warm, sweet, and totally family-friendly play adds to the exciting upwelling of new works East Bay theaters have cooked up recently. Julia Child would approve.
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