A Bread Factory tells the story of Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry), a married couple who run a non-profit arts center in a small town in upstate New York. When a competing organization takes residence nearby, the Bread Factory faces a challenge to keep its government funding. It’s the kind of place where community theater, opera, dance recitals, and music are presented, and has been a community fixture for the past 40 years. For some, its loss would be devastating.
But the new group in town, an avant-garde Chinese mime troupe called May Ray, seems to have won the support of some of the town’s official decision makers. And this could spell the end for the more homespun Bread Factory, which, incidentally, used to be a bakery.
The film is presented in two parts, Part One: For the Sake of Gold and Part Two; Walk With Me a While, for a total screen time of four hours. In it, director Patrick Wang has crafted a masterful portrait of a small town seen through the eyes of the arts center supporters. We learn much about the characters who live in the fictional town of Checkford via the way they feel about the Bread Factory and the mini-community that’s sprung up around it. Most important to the folks who practice their crafts at the center is an unspoken feeling that working together and performing for the community is an incalculable asset to the small town. Without it, Checkford would be a very different, more isolating kind of place.
“…community theater, opera, dance recitals, and music…has been a community fixture for the past 40 years. Its loss would be devastating.”
Eccentrics, such as aged thespian Sir Walter (Brian Murray), are among the colorful characters who people the place. Sir Walter recounts a conversation he had with Anton Chekhov, that we realize it could only have occurred in his imagination. And there’s Jean-Marc (Philip Kerr), a drama critic with whom Sir Walter has been feuding since the ink-stained wretch gave the British actor a negative review half a century ago.
In Part One, the group is working on a production of Euripides’ Hecuba in which Greta will star. There’s a tangled web of relationships on the periphery. The scholarly translator of that drama, Elsa (Nana Visitor), is married to school union representative Jason (James Marsters) who is having an affair with city council member Mavis (Nan-Lyn Nelson) whose husband, Sam (Milton Craig Nealy) owns the cafe that is a favorite community meeting spot. In one masterful sequence, the cafe is the scene of a fantastical performance where patrons spontaneously tap dance and sing.
Then there’s Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), editor and sole employee of the town newspaper. Her intern, Max (Zachary Style), is smitten with Julie (Erica Durham), a library assistant who is acting in Hecuba. Some of the relationship angles play a role in the main story, while others stand on their own adding interesting texture to the quirky community.
“…we’re left to ponder the misfortunes of the small community arts group and other arts centers like it.“
May Ray, the celebrity performance artists from China (Janet Hsieh) and Ray (George Young), stage some well-funded, utterly puzzling productions. One of which is a ridiculously earnest protest against “the hierarchy of furniture,” in which they sit on a table and use chairs as their dining surface. The story shapes up into a struggle between the highly polished, overly intellectualized corporate-sponsored May Ray versus the homespun Bread Factory.
While Part One is centered around Dorothea and Greta working to sway the powers that be to keep their funding, Part Two finds the production of Hecuba up and running. There’s an unmistakable and foreboding link between the play and the film’s central plot. Hecuba must experience the ritual sacrifice of her daughter, Polyxena, and that serves as a metaphor for the ritual sacrifice of the Bread Factory.
In the end, we’re left to ponder the misfortunes of the small community arts group and other arts centers like it. While they may have support among the community, too often, they lack the dollars to keep the lights on. The feeling of loss is palpable and, and this wonderful film should serve as a reminder to appreciate the truly irreplaceable assets we have.
A Bread Factory (2018) Written and directed by Patrick Wang. Starring Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry, James Marsters, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Glynnis O’Connor, Janeane Garofalo, Martina Arroyo, Jessica Pimentel, Janet Hsieh, George Young, Trevor St. John, Amy Carlson, Chris Conroy.
10 out of 10 Pumpernickel Loaves