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Women Behind Bars and Oklahomo! - Los Angeles Theater Review



Theater Reviews

by Harvey Perr

published November 22, 2009




Women Behind Bars

both now playing in  Los Angeles at the Celebration Theatre

through December 19 and 20, respectively


The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate be damned; thanks to them, there is no rehearsal of a gay version of Oklahoma! taking place anywhere at the moment or likely to be taking place at any time in the near future. Of course, if you get your ass over to the Celebration Theatre between now and December 19, any Friday or Saturday at 10:30 pm, you will see, in Justin Tanner’s hilariously scabrous Oklahomo!, a cast of extraordinarily talented comic actors doing just that: rehearsing a gay version of the classic musical which, for reasons that must be fairly obvious, is doomed to close before it even opens. Never mind. The play, which Oklahoma! is the play within, is a hell of a lot funnier than the musical it gets its deliciously wicked title from. And it’s the fastest-talking play in town and perhaps the fastest-talking entertainment since Howard Hawks put the cast of His Girl Friday on whatever form of speed they took in 1940.


To tell the truth, I’m not sure what Tanner’s play is about, or if it’s about anything at all, but, whatever else it may be, it is most certainly about the distillation of the justly renowned Tanner style. For that is exactly what it is: the essence of Justin Tanner, an hour-long romp that seems more like ten swift minutes, with a set of characters who may or may not resemble the delightful actors playing them.  And at the very head of the list is Tanner himself who proves to be the pluperfect purveyor of the style he has been refining lo all these years. Supple and subtle and as mean and as self-absorbed a character as has ever appeared on any stage, Tanner dashes through his play, tongue unleashed, knocking down everyone and everything in his way, and leading and herding the most playful stampede imaginable. He is the director who makes life miserable for the playwright who also happens to be the star and, as life sometimes makes happen, his hapless lover. But Tanner doesn’t stop with the playwright. Just stand near him and he is bound to drag you screaming to the ground. Nobody is safe. Prisoners are definitely taken. Besides, it gives to the play a verisimilitude which makes it seem as if it’s not so much written and directed as it is happening right there before you.


Attention must be paid to Danielle Kennedy’s bravura turn as a cocaine-addicted music arranger who manages to make every word she says as crisp as autumn air while speaking in a state of non-stop hysteria; if jabberwocky needs definition, Ms. Kennedy’s performance comes close to doing just that. What happens to her character should have been guessed at from the start, given the hectic pace she has set for herself. Chloe Taylor’s ditsy born-again Christian is so authentic that she sends a genuine chill up one’s spine even as she has one gagging with unsuppressed laughter. Every actor has his or her share of gorgeously privileged moments and, if I merely mention their names, do not for a moment think that they are any less part of what is, in effect, a glorious ensemble: Tad Coughenour, Guilford Adams, Jonathan Palmer, Cody Chappel, and the wonderfully matter-of-fact Abby Travis, who even gets to warble bits of song in a low-register chirp which, as a style, is, I think, called “louche.”


For those who think that gay sensibility can be summed up in just a word, this has been a great week in the theater to refute that theory, for the three examples of “gay” theater that are in our midst – Arias With a Twist and Oklahomo! and the revival of Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars, which is the Celebration’s mainstage production through December 20 – provide more than ample evidence that there are many forms of gay sensibility as there are gay men and lesbians. The variety of the three events speaks for itself.


The trouble with Women Behind Bars is that its author never cut any of the text when he was alive: it was always too long. And it’s also true that the film genre he is sending up – the women’s prison picture – is nearly as funny in its original form as it is in Eyen’s witheringly comic version. And the reason for its length lies in the need to reference each and every point in the one film it is specifically satirizing and paying genuine homage to – Caged. I personally never tire of watching Caged and wish I could say the same for Eyen’s skewering of it. That confessed, the best of Women Behind Bars is more than good enough and, in its current incarnation, under the stylish direction of Kurt Koehler, it still manages to send ripples of fun into the atmosphere. And its deft mixture of women playing some of the roles and drag performers playing the rest of the roles is handled smartly. The women seem to supply the sense of reality that is needed as counterpoint to the campiness that otherwise naturally reigns supreme. They mesh into a surprisingly wondrous ensemble. The reason is simple: each actor takes total command of her/his character and the laughs are generated as much by the winning cast as by Eyen’s frankly very funny dialogue. Again, thanks to the skillful and seamless staging, not a moment passes by without making its comic point.


Set in the Women’s House of Detention from New Year’s Eve 1952 to another New Year’s Eve seven years later, the play follows the progress of convicted felon Mary-Eleanor from innocent victim to hardened convict, while languishing among the toughest and nuttiest collection of cellmates to pop up in one play. Though comic styles vary, from broad to subtle, it manages successfully to capture what Eyen intended: to feel empathy for the women even as their arias give vent to cliché after cliché  – and they eventually  luxuriate in their own stereotypes.


The trouble with this revival is that the prison matron doesn’t seem to be part of the production. It is not that Momma, who plays the part, isn’t a forceful entertainer, but rather that (s)he stays within a persona of his own creation instead of inhabiting the part of the matron in a way that would gibe with the approach the rest of the actors have taken. He dominates the proceedings instead of being a part of it. He is a bit like a West Hollywood cabaret performer dropping in on a company of actors and making a guest appearance. And when he delivers the play’s great set piece, an aria that wants to both recall the moment on which it is based and, at the same time, blast right through it, Momma fails to rise to the occasion. And Hope Emerson, who played the part so memorably in Caged, is missed more than ever.


But Women Behind Bars, despite this glaring weakness and the longeurs of the second act, proves to be a sturdier piece of work than I would have imagined, and its bright spots decidedly take precedence over its lapses in this heady revitalization.


And, incidentally, from the point of view of one who has experienced it that way, Women Behind Bars and Oklahomo! make for a terrific double feature.


harveyperr @


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