Baking with Bertha: Back to School Special
nytheatre.com review by Joshua Conkel
August 15, 2009
Bertha Mason, like a lot of our grandmothers, is an instantly recognizable relic from another, supposedly happier and more innocent time. This is why we can forgive her when, say, she tells a story about her nephew, "a gay," who "went to Vietnam to adopt a Chinese baby." Because she follows it with a slogan about how butter fixes everything and we rest assured knowing that she meant it in the nicest way possible.
Bertha is, of course, the titular hostess of Baking With Bertha: Back To School Special, a Chicago-based show now playing in the FringeNYC Festival. Michael D. Bowen, who plays Bertha and co-created the character with writer and director Sam Barber, is a winning performer. For this reason my date and I wanted the show to go well. We could tell Bowen was nervous delivering Bertha's opening monologue. Bertha's hands were shaking and, in her own words, she was "sweating like a hostage."
The throughline of this Food Network spoof is a monologue about Bertha's recent moonlighting as a playground aid at her grandson's elementary school that ends in tragedy. (She calls her grandson "the butterball," by the way, and in true American form takes a personal pride in his morbid obesity.) In the breaks during the monologue Bertha takes volunteers from the audience who assist her in making a pie crust or compete against one another in whipped-cream-making contests for prizes.
Bowen is very charming when he's just shooting the breeze with members of the audience and improvising speeches. In one particular moment of improv genius, Bertha politely explains to the audience why she thinks Rachael Ray is a terrorist. During the scripted moments of the show, however, Bowen is less successful. I found myself frustrated throughout much of Baking With Bertha because I felt separated from it and from Bertha herself. I found myself wanting to be right at the table with Bertha, with all the trappings of the show set aside. A quick trip to berthamason.com told me that Bertha is a well-known personality who does events and teaches baking classes all around Chicago. I'm assuming these private events, with Bowen left to improvise while baking with perfect strangers, are a lot more fun than this scripted show.
Bertha Mason, as a character, is incredibly charming and Bowen is a delightful improviser, but Baking With Bertha: Back To School Special could and should have been a lot more fun.