Jewel Rae (Donna Jo Thorndale) does not endorse any products.
(photo by Jonathan Kalan)
Actor's Gang member Donna Jo Thorndale's spoof of the Food Network's most famous Southern belle, Paula Deen, is doggone funny. She references her dog, Hambone, who "comes up and wants to taste [her cooking]," unintentionally makes blatant sexual references ("...you want to pour this on while it's hot so it'll soak up all that sticky goodness..."), and adds condiments like Cool Whip to the list of foods proven to lengthen your life.
Deterring from that to rants about healthcare, the war, and prison reform, however, proves a recipe for disaster. When it's done comically, as when Thorndale, as "Jewell Rae Jeffers," explains, "First thing that attracted me to Actor's Gang was that it was a gang--but it's not; y'all can go home and Wikipedia it," it's a riot.
Yet when she launches into grave tirades over such as the NPR story
of a man whose "third strike" of stealing a dollar package of donuts found him facing a 25-years-to-life prison sentence, the mood turns awkward. Is this a lecture, or a play?
While having toe-tappin', hand-clappin', boot-stompin' bands like The Broken Numbers Band
and With a Bible and a Gun
stand in for intermissions is probably the most entertaining aspect of the evening, it furthers the uncertainty of the show. Laughing when Jeffers talks about punching messages like "stop this war" into her cakes feels like an invitation to get publicly chastised. And is there a way to install a moratorium on war pontification in theatre? At this point, it's not only redundant, it's like preaching a pro-life stance in an evangelical church.
Asking the play to ease off prison reform is more difficult, as the show was created as part of Actor's Gang's "WTF?! Festival," and all proceeds benefit their community outreach programs. One of those is The Actor's Gang Prison Project, through which the company encourages creativity in inmates through two or more months of weekly group workshops.
The premise of the show, "A Johnny Cash prison tribute cooking show/concert" is wacky, but Thorndale could, with a more definitive focus, work it. Unlike the delicious coconut cake Jewel Rae produces for the audience, though, this satire is half-baked.