Lettuce and laughter were being tossed in abundance at last night's opening, and world premiere, of playwright Sheila Callaghan's new play, WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD, the inaugural production of Woolly Mammoth's 36th season. The play is among the more than fifty works by women being featured in DC theaters during the Women's Voices Theater Festival this fall. Woolly Mammoth has a well-earned reputation for presenting bold works that challenge audiences, and push the boundaries of how stories are being told on stage. WOMEN LAUGHING is a perfect fit for Woolly Mammoth, and for the cast and creative team who have crafted this piece.

How are women viewed by society? By men? Most importantly, by themselves? The impenetrability of human veneers, and the pervasive stereotypes (of both men and women) are highlighted in some hilarious ways in Callaghan's work, with a strong emphasis on how these veneers play out sexually. WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD had its germination in a collection of stock photographs posted without text, under the same title in 2011, on the feminist website The Hairpin (created by journalist Edith Zimmerman). Described by the play's dramaturg, Kirsten Bowen, the photos were "portraits of women, many of whom were attired in tasteful, neutral ensembles of relaxed casual wear against white or blank backgrounds, posing with bowls of salad. Which they seemed to really enjoy!" That last part is important; the seeming glee on the faces of the women in the photos begs to be examined, from a media and advertising perspective, and in the broader context of public perception of women, and how that perception is both internalized and subsequently externalized by individual women, in a somewhat vicious cycle.

While there is a surplus of sex in the first act of WOMEN LAUGHING, the play succeeds not In being outrageous with graphic sexual imagery, but by using that imagery to emphasize the unpredictability and natural chaos of the human brain as it navigates a minefield of influences. The action in Act I is divided into what I might call "scene bites," some serving primarily as food (salad?) for thought, others being vignettes that move the story along, albeit rarely in the direction you thought. The scene transitions are represented by manipulated, often beautiful, sometimes creepy (in a good way), images projected on multiple screens in the stage area. I can pretty much guarantee you will never view a bell pepper, onion or cherry tomato in the same way again. With one notable exception in Act II, there is nary a predictable line or scene in the show, and this controlled chaos is well-managed by the brilliant staging, music and sound design. For example, the risqué and ribald libidinous romps and discussions taking place in various scenes are interspersed with slide show interludes accompanied by soaring orchestral scores that leave you almost meditative for a brief moment, as your impression of fresh vegetables is forever transformed.

The three women of various ages at the center of the story, are a mashup of exaggerated female stereotypes, and powder kegs of emotion; even more inflated when contrasted with the mundane nature of lettuce. Seriously. Despite the lone male, maypole-like character around which much of the first act action revolves, each woman holds sway at some point. Tori is Guy's deceptively vapid, bulimic girlfriend; Meredith, a seemingly uninhibited barfly with a pinup appeal to whom he finds himself attracted, and Sandy, his coldly direct mother, nursing some disturbing issues with the maintenance of her physical appearance. Director Kip Fagan who has worked with Callaghan a number of times in the past, and is no stranger to boundary-pushing theater, has shepherded this production skillfully. WOMEN LAUGHING is the perfect illustration of how arguably risky theater can often rise or fall on the willingness of the actors to fully commit to being fearless on that stage. Deep trust in the work, in the playwright, in the director can directly translate to whether the audience will take the journey with them. In this case, the entire cast clearly had that trust, and with each other as well.

Woolly Mammoth company member and award-winning actor Kimberly Gilbert (an incredibly appealing and hilarious Meredith), jumps, breasts first, into the playground that Callaghan's words, Fagan's direction and a talented creative team has created on stage. Her chemistry with Thomas Keegan (an excellent Guy) is explosive; and her ability to shift and morph in a character with a glance or tone of voice is remarkable. Also wildly impressive is Chicago-based actor, Janet Ulrich Brooks (Sandy) who transforms from calculating and cruel, to broken and vulnerable in a mere moment. And then there's the wonderful Meghan Reardon, who refuses to allow Tori to be dismissed by either the other characters, or the audience, as a manipulated mannequin. Each cast member has nearly flawless comedic timing, and just wait until you meet them again in Act II.

Taboos are broken throughout the show, and while sometimes a bit of a shock, I found it refreshing to hear seriously raw language being delivered by a woman on stage; particularly openly describing what she wants and needs sexually. There's been a great deal of discussion about how theater can do so much more than merely entertain; the art is being poked and prodded to better reflect the diversity of society, and tell stories with the power to change how we think of each other.

In that vein, it's tempting, I think, to leave WOMEN LAUGHING chuckling about the surface humor and feeling satisfied that the more weighty issues have been properly addressed. However, it's more likely that you may leave the theater bubbling over with a jumble of thoughts and impressions about what you just experienced; and may still be talking about them days later.

Although I believe there are details of a production that each audience should discover on its own, and therefore will not reveal in this review, I will reiterate my standard advice to those seeking out theater to enjoy: read the fine print on theater marketing materials. Woolly Mammoth gives a very clear disclaimer about the content of this show, and the age appropriateness of the material. Heed this warning. Assuming you're on board, here's my advice: if you enjoy theater that takes you on a wild ride, makes you laugh, and encourages you to always question your first impression, this is a show for you.

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From This Author Ellen Burns

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