"Real Women Have Curves" and a Lot of Heart

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If Eugene Morris Jerome (of Neil Simon fame) had a Hispanic cousin, she would likely be Ana in Real Women Have Curves, the comedy by Josefina Lopez currently being presented by Catonsville Theatre Company.  Ana, like Eugene has keen observational wit, the same longing for more than life outside her neighborhood, and actually learns from the life she lives and those who share it with her.  The five ladies Ana spends most of her day with are part relations part friends but a complete family, much like the ladies in Steel Magnolias.  They, too, share deep personal feelings about womanhood, always one part wisdom, one part love and one part humor.  America Ferrara, star of the hit television show, Ugly Betty, also starred in an HBO version of the play, as Ana, and the play is very similar in tone to Ugly Betty.  Of course, these comparisons makes Curves sound derivative (it is), but in this case, that is not a bad thing, as Lopez has crafted a fun, heart-warming evening of theatre that is full of its own memorable moments.

            Of course, a good script is worthless in the wrong hands, and I am pleased to report that all of the right hands are involved here.  Jayme Kilburn, who did excellent work earlier this year with Hope's Arbor at Spotlighters, shows that she has the goods to direct a more traditional play with Curves, but with the same natural, fast-paced style.  I am always fascinated by direction that moves constantly, even in the most stationary of situations.  Curves takes place in a very cramped room that includes several sewing stations, where the women work in unbearable heat to create a line of high fashion dresses.  It would make perfect sense to have the ladies sit at their machines throughout the two or so hours of the play, and a lesser director might just rely on that, but Kilburn manages to create truly organic, necessary reasons to get the play on its feet and moving right along.  She also benefits from a clever concept that includes design elements from the magical realism movement in Latin theatre (set and prop design by Tala Chavez) - the sewing machines and dresses are not real, practical props; instead they are simple and stylized, almost cartoon like with severe angles and curves outlined in black.  It is no mistake, for example, that the "mannequin" used to display a size 2 dress is a stylized skeleton, placed there by a corps of women who are voluptuous and curvy.  What a sharp piece of commentary, and it never hits you in the head or drags on so that the concept becomes heavy-handed!  Kilburn also benefits from excellent casting.

            As Ana, Erin Riley is a wonder.  Her sharp delivery, plaintively desperate tone and her growing maturity make a complete character.  Ana is an amply boned young woman, who likely endured much criticism and making fun of in high school - in fact her mother, Carmen, (played riotously by Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler) berates her daily for being fat with large breasts.  Riley gives her character terrific strength as she fends off one caustic remark after another (Carmen also laments her lack of grandchildren).  The irony, of course, is that age has given Carmen her share of bulk and curves.  Leimkuhler's performance is a delicious mix of nag, neediness and wisdom.  She is particularly hilarious in a scene where she thinks she is pregnant, letting the ladies and us know that she is still, "at her age" a sexual being, and later very warming and affecting when she realizes she is not with child, but rather beginning menopause.  As Carmen's other daughter, Estela, Erica Johnson is a great ball of fire - passionate and constantly on the move.  Her accent is thick, but always understandable, and she brings a nice realism to this Hispanic entrepreneur.  Estela owns this company, and rides her employees mercilessly, with one eye on the clock and the other on the bottom line.  The funny irony is that the more work that needs to be done, the less she does!  But in the end, Johnson has allowed Estela to be a full grown woman - with one eye on compassion and the other on the dreams for her family.  Belinda Panelo brings surprising depth to perhaps the weakest written character, Rosalie, a pretty girl with a great figure, but an addiction to diet pills.  Panelo is fortunate to have the opportunity to work a great deal with Jess Angell, the other worker, Pancha.  The two make a fine pair, as Pancha revels in her curvy body as much as Rosalie hates her own.  Angell also has a caustic, razor sharp delivery and a way with sarcasm that is both enraging and quite funny.  She also has that ability that so many actors strive for, but never really attain - she acts with her face as much as her voice, contributing to every scene whether she's speaking or not.  Together, the five have terrific chemistry, which adds a layer of believability - it is clear that they really enjoy each other's company as much as their characters do.

            Finally, it must be said, that these terrific women also have great courage, as at one point all of them strip down to bra and panties, a fete even people with "perfect gym bodies" might resist.  But, like the scene in which it takes place, one feels sure that the characters and the women who play them are empowered by the resulting freedom from this bold act.  And that bold act, one hopes, will rub off on audiences, as they realize that curves equal power and self-worth and self-respect, not self-loathing.  I, for one, feel better for having met these real women.


PHOTO: (L to R) Jess Angell, Belinda Panelo, Erin Riley, Erica Johnson and Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler in Real Women Have Curves.  Photo by Steve Teller.

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