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Like all theaters, the Shakespeare Theatre (where, full disclosure, I work) has its share of superstitions and traditions. Witness, for instance, the Gumby and Pokey dolls that live beneath the stage, dressed in handmade costumes appropriate to whatever production is currently playing. Offstage right, there is the Elvis shrine, an altar of memorabilia, news clippings, and souvenirs glorifying the King amassed by the crew and visiting actors. But none of the theater’s folkways are quite as indulgent as the annual Cheesecake Bakeoff, begun some 10 years ago by stage manager James Latus (who also started the Elvis shrine) and now presided over by the acting company’s resident jester, Floyd King.

King, who is currently yukking it up in director Daniel Fish’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor set in the 1950s, inherited the Bakeoff four years ago when Latus moved and King took over his apartment. “It usually happens in the middle of some horrendous—well, we’re always rehearsing two shows. We like to do it then so both casts can come,” explains King, who is now rehearsing his one-man show, Mad About the Bard, an irreverent look at Shakespeare’s life and work. “We only see each other—unless we go out for drinks or something—during rehearsals, when we’re exhausted.”

This year’s contest was held right before Michael Kahn’s production of Peer Gynt closed and just as the Merry cast and crew were entering tech week, when they begin dry runs with lighting and sound. “Everybody comes, but really the crew and staff are the driving force behind the tradition,” says King. “They’re always the winners—because a lot of actors don’t even have cheesecake pans.” (Many actors bring champagne instead.) King plays MC, directing the tastings and awarding the prizes.

Cheesecakes are graded for their originality, their crusts, and their decadence quotient, with additional prizes for Best First Attempt, Best Overall, and Best Theme. This year’s Bakeoff included a cake dubbed “Captain Morgan’s Revenge,” a concoction laced with rum, and, in honor of Peer Gynt’s misshapen goblins, “Troll Mountain Sanctuary,” an enormous cheesecake piled high with sour-cream fudge and marzipan creatures. Everybody who attends the party can taste and judge, and by the end of the night, when pink streaks of dawn lighten the sky and winners are crowned with bejeweled spring-form pans, the exhausted actors and techies, spent after back-to-back shows and many sick with colds, are fairly twitching, reanimated by gutfuls of sugar and chocolate.

“Cheesecake is special,” King attests. “Why, I don’t know. There’s no association that I know of between actors and cheesecake. Actors and cheese maybe, but not cheesecake. It is, I suppose, just something we need.”—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the Shakespeare Theatre through May 10, 1998. For tickets, call (202) 393-2700. King’s one-man show, Mad About the Bard, plays at the Folger Shakespeare Library from May 13 to May 31, 1998. For information, call (202) 544-7520.