All Cake, No File -- Theater Review

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Subtitled "The Johnny Cash Prison Tribute, Comedy, Cooking Show Concert," Donna Jo Thorndale's relentlessly funny, wholly political if mildly controversial one-woman cooking show is a surrealistic, pop culture parody that, despite rough language and occasional cocaine references, is appropriate for kids of all ages.

Playing at the Actors' Gang theater in Culver City, where bare brick walls, tiny windows and high ceilings brilliantly simulate the grim confines of the California state prison whose inmates the Actors' Gang Prison Project serves, quasi-fictional celebrity chef Jewell Rae Jeffers ("Jewelry" to her friends) melds the spunk of Rachael Ray with the larceny of Martha Stewart and the sweet, sexy attractions of a Southern belle.

While Jeffers is putting together her cake, a different one for each night's performance, she positively gushes with stories about her life and her men and recipes for keeping them happy. At well-chosen spots, a very excellent Johnny Cash tribute band, With a Bible and a Gun, contributes extended musical interludes.

Thorndale's wide repertoire of shtick, which is probably unique to the Jeffers character, ranges from smarmy product references (Duncan Hines, Target, Ghirardelli's chocolate) to pairing the wisdom of Jesus Christ with various contemporary celebrities. And wherever she goes, the audience follows.

There is a peculiarly positioned dark side to all of this frivolity. When Jeffers gets ticked off by social iniquity, she turns venomous for enough of a perfectly timed split second or two to suggest that her morality is pretty damned loose, in a libertarian way of course. If one never quite knows whether she's really a chef or just an actor, that's part of the show's genius.

Equally unsettling are the infrequent, brief exchanges between Jewelry and an alter ego sort-of corrections officer (an unnervingly mechanical April Fitzsimmons) on such deep subjects as common sense and freedom ("That's free-dumb, y'all," she says).

As a reminder that this is supposed to be a prison you're in, the uncomfortably high distortion level of the Johnny Cash makes it impossible to hear more than about 25% of the lyrics. But you get to hear the best loud and clear, like the "ville-ville-ville" of the endless towns and cities in which they appear.

For each of the run's eight performances, Jewelry "cooks" a different recipe. On opening night, it was "Coalminer's Cake," a densely chocolate, heavily iced ticket to the cardiac ward. As Jewelry might put it, with her characteristic two-edged sword, the kind of cake she makes for the men she loves.

Venue: Actors' Gang Theater, Culver City (Through July 31)
Cast: Donna Jo Thorndale, April Fitzsimmons
Playwright: Donna Jo Thorndale
Director: Shira Piven
Band: With a Bible and a Gun (Corby Gallegos, vocals/rhythm and guitar; Jim Vitale, electric guitar; Mike Salazar, bass; Alex Carlisle, drums)
Stage manager: Amanda Faison
Sound designer: Peter Bayne
Set coordinator: Mia Torres
Lighting designer: Amber Koehler
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