Cell Block Sirens of 1953 | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Cell Block Sirens of 1953 

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Cell Block Sirens of 1953, Open Eye Productions, at the Athenaeum Theatre. The usually serious Open Eye company has every right to attempt camp, of course. But their production of this play exemplifies what can go wrong when modest, restrained artists try to replicate the take-no-prisoners sensibility at the heart of camp today.

Christopher Willard and Andrew Shoffner's 1999 spoof explicitly targets broads-behind-bars B flicks, but it also draws on insane-asylum nail-biters, monster-animal thrillers, and sugary musicals--genres renowned for excess and thus excusing some measure of dramaturgical sloppiness. Ultimately this kitchen-sink approach confuses rather than amuses, however, especially since nobody connected with this production seems to know what to do with even the most obvious opportunities for humor: a bunk built for two, for example, or a skeleton in a wheelchair (you know, like in Psycho) dubbed "Lifer Lil."

Maybe it's not cluelessness but cold feet. Two of the female roles are drag turns, but the other women are played by young actresses who appear embarrassed by the hostility toward women rampant in the camp aesthetic, created by and for gay men. Only Defiant Theatre veteran Jennifer Gehr--whose martinet matron teases us at one point with a feather boa before stripping to shorts and tasseled pasties--fearlessly embraces the vulgarity of the play's universe. But one performer cannot liberate a cast so imprisoned by inhibitions.

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