Nothing But A She Thing | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Nothing But A She Thing 

Girl Theater (Bad as We Want to Be)/at National Pastime Theater

Girl Theater (Bad as We Want to Be)

at National Pastime Theater

By Carol Burbank

We enjoy being Girls. We hope you enjoy watching us be Girls this evening. Girls Rule. That's All." So reads the pale pink program for Girl Theater (Bad as We Want to Be). A perky, curly-coiffed bodybuilder graces the program's cover, grinning playfully, showing off feminine good cheer as well as nicely formed biceps. It's as good a preparation as any for these high-energy, eccentric, challenging vignettes, performed by eight young women whose eagerness to romp is matched only by their willingness to surprise. Though the cast wrote some of the 17 monologues, most were penned by other local writers; subjects and approaches range from explicit sexual confessions to wry, smart pop-culture parodies. There's a breathless feeling to the evening, which includes acrobatically choreographed fight scenes and playful sight gags as little entr'actes, our only breaks between the fast-paced monologues.

The National Pastime Theater stage has been painted to mimic the marble walls and stately ceiling of the former speakeasy it was, so the women's rapid appearances and disappearances seem to take place in a generic no-place and no-time, freeing the performers from complicated scene shifts. The actors use only their voices, their bodies, and a few simple props and costumes to establish characters, dismantle cultural stereotypes, and evoke an almost confrontational goofiness that catches the audience and keeps it hooked until the last sentimental scene, which celebrates women's journey into the continuing adventures of middle age.

One of the best monologues is Constance L. Bacon's "Important Social Functions," genteelly delivered by Kristy Lockhart. It addresses a common problem--how to behave at highbrow cocktail parties--in an uncommon way. The monologue is introduced by a drill team who apply lipstick with precise, arch, military seriousness. And as Lockhart explains her social deficiency (she talks too much), she also alerts us to the dark underside of small-town life, an increasingly surreal world in which belonging means tallying ominous secrets. Blended together in this eerie roller-coaster ride through corruption are echoes of Susan Smith ("Children and small cars fall through the ice because they don't belong there") and oversexed TV-docudrama gossip. As Lockhart--a sinister and ridiculous presence--takes us through a litany of crimes, peccadilloes, and stories of disfigurement, she viciously guts, fillets, crushes, and hacks a whole fish into pieces, putting each bloody organ and slab of flesh neatly into her purse with a satisfied smile.

Lockhart has another star turn as the performer of Wanda Strukus's brilliantly understated "Power Rangers," the story of a dull-witted punker whose acting career reaches its nadir when she's cast as an extra on the Power Rangers TV series. Lockhart gives this unlikely heroine a sullen, bleak slouch, which increases as she tells the audience what happens when the sight of her pierced tongue disrupts a midday shoot in a desert location. The tale of her disastrous afternoon and Lockhart's sincere befuddlement make this rambling monologue one of the evening's best.

Pop culture is also skewered in more direct ways. In "Barbie," written by Andrew Magnuson, Ched Bendsen talks about meeting a full-size, walking and talking version of that tiny extruded-plastic icon. Although the end falls a little flat, with its sentimental characterization of life-size plastic motherhood, Bendsen uses a wry tone and direct address to elicit belly laughs from Magnuson's witty descriptions. Reader contributor Gabrielle Kaplan, in her "I Am Emma Peel," performed by Jocelyn Don DeVille, imagines a similar life-size version of an imaginary person, but this time it's the invincible Emma herself, entertaining us with reminiscences of elementary school, when she would terrorize dinner guests with butter knives while fighting off marauding ninjas.

It seems any and every topic, as long as it's paradoxically both tongue-in-cheek and heartfelt, is fair game. Don DeVille's performance in Strukus's literary parody "Trashy Novel" and Deanna Cooke's plainly sensuous performance in Elizabeth Sidell's "Bedtalk," about a woman taking control in bed, represent two extremes of the sexy silliness that's an important part of watching the group "be girls" for an evening; they also manage to incorporate S-M, bad beat poetry, family dysfunction vaudeville-style, celebrations of motherhood, and confessions from the ridiculous to the touchingly simple. Even the occasional one-note monologue--like "I'm the Woman Bukowski Fucked Last Night," written and performed by Kaplan--has an element of risk. Overall the evening feels like a buoyant experiment, a celebration of the unspoken, passionate, awkward circumstance of being female.

To a great extent these monologues are about power and submission, but you'll leave the theater laughing. There's no hint of polemical stoicism, no despairing catalog of social injustice; equally refreshing, there's no airheaded kowtowing to sexist sitcom stereotypes. Director Lorrie Sparrow has managed to bring out in each monologue a tantalizing mix of bald self-revelation and comic artifice, which makes the evening both funny and pointed. The ironic mix of coy "girl" rhetoric and entr'acte shtick with the performers' straightforward playfulness makes this a piece of feminist theater that's also about the game of pleasure, even as it tells stories about transcending a culture that renders women invisible after the age of 40. Disarmed by the circus of silliness, we're able to see and appreciate both the parody and the self-aware empowerment just below the surface of the feminine facade. Girl Theater is a cabaret seduction that succeeds through goodwill, good writing, and quickly shifting, smart-ass performances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of girls by Tony V. Martin.

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