Regardless of the dexterity of the performer up onstage, the unbridled mirth caused by watching Brad from San Mateo attempt to dance a polka with a stuffed kangaroo or answer questions about his sex life is almost always at Brad's expense. This creates a strange dynamic in the theater, for although audience participation is supposed to produce a closer bond between the actor and the spectators, it often has the opposite effect: The schmo looks bad in order to make the pro look good, and the end result can easily be estrangement.
But when Heather Gold interacts with an audience, something unusual happens. In her solo show, I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie, Gold recounts the journey from Niagara Falls (where she spent the first 19 years of her life) to her current role as S.F.'s resident lesbian domestic goddess -- while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Audience members eagerly rush to the front of the room to take part in the action, as if they were contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. As the evening progresses, random people call out questions and comments from the floor. The high level of interaction is all very polite and good-humored -- there isn't a heckler in the house.
And if that participation isn't strange enough, these paying customers come off remarkably well. Whether they're mixing ingredients, helping Gold re-create a scene at an '80s school dance, or offering sympathy about growing up Jewish in a tiny Canadian town, we're laughing with them, not at them. Even as she's plunking bits of soggy cookie dough onto a battered metal baking tray and babbling on about her rugby-playing days as a law student at Yale, Gold, wielding her remarkable improvisation skills, creates an atmosphere of cozy intimacy and inspires a room full of natural comedians.
Unfortunately, making us feel like we're hanging out in Gold's kitchen rather than watching her solo show has its downside. The actor's relaxed, conversational style sometimes grates. In everyday conversation, ubiquitous tics such as "like," "and then," and "you know" quickly become tiresome; onstage, they're even harder to stomach. Cookie also includes moments in which Gold seems to forget altogether that she's performing. Extending her hand to audience members with a genial, "Hi, I'm Heather! Pleased to meet you!" is a sweet gesture that adds to the spirit of cooking camaraderie, but doing it once or twice would be enough. We know who she is; after all, we've paid good money to watch her bake cookies.
Certain parts of her monologue also ramble on for too long, and others, such as the section about her spell in an isolation ward at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto when she was 11, seem superimposed. Then there are the times when Gold appears to retreat into her own world. Stirring her bowl of cookie dough and occasionally breaking out into a rapturous refrain that goes something like "Sweet, mushy, delicious goodness all mixed together," Gold looks and sounds like a horny housewife speaking in tongues.
Yet even during the show's most half-baked moments, it's easy to understand why the audience gets so involved. Bouncing about in gold jeans and geeky glasses, spraying flour and Yiddishisms in all directions, Gold makes for an endearingly slapdash cook. Each performance at Hotel Rex involves a special guest (on the night I saw Cookie, Lynnee Breedlove, novelist and lead singer of the dyke-punk band Tribe 8, was chopping pecans with surgical precision). Add to this the sheer pleasure of seeing a food-themed show that's not about battling one's body image (as is so often the case with productions by female artists -- e.g., Eve Ensler's The Good Body, which premiered last year at ACT) and a program stuffed with recipes for delicacies like ginger snaps and caramel chocolate squares, and you've got a tasty treat.
But Gold's ability to connect with her audience isn't just about the smell of fresh-baked cookies. On a more profound level, her stories about coming out, ditching law for a career in comedy, and growing up in a tightknit Jewish family on the brink of a very big waterfall might be specific to her, but they still resonate deeply with all of us. Baking as a metaphor for the search for identity is probably one of the most overblown conceits since John Donne compared a set of compasses to a pair of lovers, but because of Gold's clear affection for those who come to see her, she makes it work.