Anyone who complains that downtown theatre consists mainly of intimate straight plays in black box theatres with minimal sets would do well to check out The Jack of Tarts: A Bittersweet Musical. With its sixteen member production team, seventeen musical numbers, eighteen cast members, a live orchestra and countless glittery pastries, the campy extravaganza is anything but small-scale. Every aspect of the performance, from its design scheme to its performance style, is highly exaggerated, yet playwrights Chris Tanner and Eric Wallach, who also directs, keep the plotlines of their adult-themed fairy tale relatively simple. The kingdom of Tartannia is trapped in the grips of a despotic queen (Lance Cruce) who has imprisoned her son Jack (Tanner) in a dungeon where he is forced to bake tarts that drive the commoners mad - until his complicity is threatened by two wronged heroines: Agnes (Michael Lynch) who longs for vengeance and Annabel Lee (Julie Atlas Muz) who longs for Jack.
Throw in some scrappily insane peasants, royal guards with a penchant for S&M, a couple of campy cohorts of the queen, and references ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Edgar Allan Poe, and the plot is decorated if not exactly thickened. No matter: thin plot points are waved off with a wink and a shrug (“you would think these two would have been stopped before they could hatch a plan” deadpans an excellent Richard Spore as narrator Big Daddy, “…I still don’t know how that happened”).
Still, there is a fine line between campy self-mockery and unpolished performance, and The Jack of Tarts walks both sides of it. Comprised largely of veteran Village drag queens and recent college graduates, the cast clearly has a lot of fun but their performances are often hesitant. While they form an impressively cohesive ensemble, surprisingly few cast members seize what could be standout moments appropriate to a production so consciously performative, and as a result the pace drags.
The musical numbers feel well-rehearsed, yet the music is not particularly memorable and the lyrics are at times difficult to understand. Choreography, by Wallach, gets the job done but doesn’t go much beyond that. An exception is Annabel’s Arrival choreographed and performed by Muz. The scene is a particularly lovely moment of lightness enhanced by design elements, which are simple yet enormous. At its best moments, all aspects of the production embody those qualities and it would be great if there were more of them.
Throughout the production, the design scheme is instrumental in evoking the world of Tartannia. Garry Haye’s impressive set looms large in the small theatre. Zsamira Sol Ronquillo’s wig and makeup design adds far more than a flourish to Becky Hubbert’s fun costumes. Perhaps most importantly, the titular tarts are spectacular. Given that they make the characters completely nuts, it's important that they look great. They do.
From the opening of the play, every inch of La MaMa’s first floor theatre is packed with style and flavor. Literally: upon entering the space, audiences find cast members serving pastries. The extension of the performance into the audience, which continues periodically throughout the production, is limited enough to be noninvasive while successfully making the entire performance space into the play’s world. Such a warm invitation to join in the fun helps keep the audience patient during the performance's weaker moments.
At its best, The Jack of Tarts is an irreverent romp that celebrates the ridiculous while asking heartfelt questions about irresponsible leadership and those who follow it. The play's final scene, when those questions become most prescient, is among the finest of the production. It’s worth the wait.