BWW Review: WOMEN BEHIND BARS at Desert Rose Playhouse
Desert Rose Playhouse, the Coachella Valley's LGBT theatre company, always picks something light and enjoyable as their season finale, the slot they refer to as "Hot summer nights." To balance out the fact that the last two summers had an all-male show, this year's choice is Women Behind Bars with a mostly female cast. They pulled out all the stops to assemble some of the Valley's top actresses for this side-splitting send up of the tawdry prison dame B-features of the 50's. They are joined by one man and a couple of dolls who arrive at the theatre as men. The results are hilarious, and this show should be on your "Must See List!"
The filmic tone of the show is set by projected titles, listing the title, cast, directors, etc. The cast listing finishes with, "And introducing Phylicia Mason as Mary-Eleanor," an inclusion that was funny even in the original movies in that virtually the entire cast was unknowns. The lights come up to reveal seven hard-edged gals who are the denizens of the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village. A new prisoner is brought into the cell. She is the fresh-faced Mary-Eleanor (Phylicia Mason), a debutante in a smart suit with her hair in delicate curls.
As soon as The Matron (Loren Freeman) and her flunky (Ruth Braun) slam the cell doors closed, the other dames quickly strip the newby down to her undies, ostensibly to dress her in her prison garb, but instead they circle around her and rape her with a broom handle. Rape? Didn't you say this was a comedy? Well, we know from the outset that this is a bigger-than-life sendup of several dozen movies that were produced in the 50's by Universal, Warner Brothers and Republic Pictures, and lesbianism was strongly hinted at. The bad girls in prison seemed to be a counterpoint to the smiling, well-scrubbed beauties of most other movies from the period. So scenes such as the rape, the delivery of a baby, and a switchblade fight in the showers (guess where they hid the knives?) are all delivered in a bigger-than-life style and typically brought hoots of laughter.
During its 90 minutes, the play makes several time jumps, finishing with Mary-Eleanor's release after eight years of incarceration. She emerges from the prison as a hardened drug dealer, ready to leave the big house for a life of crime and debauchery.
The play was written by Tom Eyen in 1975 and was never meant to be taken seriously, even though the moral message of "good girl turned bad by the system" can't be ignored. Phylicia Mason's transformation from dewy-eyed deb to tough-as-nails broad is well nuanced, and delivered in subtle stages. The other gals are each unique, and this terrific group of actresses keeps each of them alive and focused throughout. They include local songbird Francesca Amari as Ada, a spacy sprite who has had one too many shock therapy sessions; Melanie Blue as Guadalupe, a lanky Puerto Rican lady of the evening; Deb Harmon as Blanche, a faded southern belle; Kimberly Cole as Jo-Jo, a needy gal who is the butt of Blanche's racism; Adina Lawson as Granny, a Bible reading octogenarian who squawks and gawks at everything; Yo Younger as Gloria, a tough lipstick lesbian who puts moves on Mary-Eleanor; and Kam Sisco, in drag as Cheri, a prostitute who is reminiscent of a very tall Marilyn Monroe.
The leading role is The Matron, a bulldozing bull dyke who doesn't take crap from anyone. Over the years, the role has been played by Divine and other notables, with the Los Angeles production headed by Adrienne Barbeau. Here, Loren Freeman comes close to perfection in his drag rendition of the role. The Matron is aided by the sycophantic Louise, played by Ruth Braun. She grovels in front of the Matron, but in turn lashes out at the girls.
All the male roles, including Mary-Eleanor's husband, a prison guard, and a pimpy drug dealer are played by Miguel Arballo. It's fortunate that he and Mason are actually a couple because a lot of their physical contact (including him on top of her while fully nude) is very intimate indeed!
Set designer Toby Griffin and Costumer Jennifer Stowe have stuck to shades of grey, reminding us that the play is based on black & white movies. The bars and the sliding gate of the cell are very solid, and sound like real metal when touched or moved. Phil Murphy's lighting continues with the black & white motif, and Jim Straight's sound (including some iconic Elmer Bernstein tracks) kept us in the right decade. The terrific wigs were by Toni Molano, and the production was stage managed by Ben Cole.
Touchingly, the play was co-directed by Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne. Strait and his husband, producer Paul Taylor, started the company eight years ago, and both of them are retiring at the end of July. Wayne will step in as Artistic Director, so for them to jointly stage this production was a perfect passing of the torch. Kam Sisco will take over producer duties.
The show plays weekends through July 29. Further information and tickets are available at www.DesertRosePlayhouse.org, as well as titles and season tickets for their 2018-2019 season which starts in October.
Photo Credit: Mike Thomas Photography