Poison Nut Productions

at the Rudely Elegant Theater

To truly appreciate Barbie the Fantasies, you have to understand the mentality of the Rudely Elegant company. To publicize their show, the Rudely Elegants rented a limo, loaded up the cast, and drove them through the gay pride parade, tossing cans of beer as they went. Decorating their handsome and comfortable new lobby is a large multipaned window sitting on the floor, across which is spray-painted “Culture THIS!” On the wall near the bathroom is a huge handwritten message: “No drugs in the bathroom unless you invite a Rudely Elegant staff member.” Yet the only untoward thing in the bathroom is a bottle of pink nail polish. In the back of the program for Barbie they thank Red Bones Theater “for fucking us over and making us build our own space–not bad, huh?”

At last, a theater company that doesn’t mind causing some trouble.

And luckily this dislike for playing it safe infuses the Rudely Elegant debut production, Barbie the Fantasies. Barbie is as funny, thrilling, and dangerous as setting fire to your most hated toys in the basement while your parents sit unwittingly upstairs.

Barbie the Fantasies was developed through the cast’s improvisation, then scripted by director Steven Milford and assistant director Lance Hunt. The result is eight intentionally disconnected scenes that depict Barbie (of doll fame, of course) and her cohorts in a series of ludicrous and increasingly perverse situations. Between these scenes are video interviews, mostly of people at the gay pride parade or outside of Water Tower Place, talking about their memories and fantasies of Barbie. Invariably these stories turn to sex, violence, or both, themes that run throughout the show.

After a weak opening–a pageant, with the cast awkwardly posed and lip-synching to the song “The World of Barbie”–the show begins in earnest with Barbie (Kate Hill) and Ken (Sean McGinn) in their Dream House, perfect in every way. Then G. I. Joe (Klift Karaffa) arrives and convinces Ken to illegally acquire cable television, an evil that the overwrought Barbie equates with “crack cocaine.” Later we see her at a groovy Hollywood party trying to arrange a three-way with Midge (Laurie K. Nelson) and the sleazy producer/inventor/impresario Mr. Matel (Christopher Parrish), but only if she can wear her new “strap-on.” Before long we’re seeing Barbie the bull dyke at a board of directors meeting, Ken the flaming faggot, Barbie and friends on Geraldo, and Barbie turning into a crazed psycho-killer.

The scenes themselves are for the most part wildly imaginative and played to the hilt by a uniformly talented cast (which also includes Kate Dwyer as a brilliantly bland Skipper). The scenes have no logical or narrative progression; instead each is introduced by a comment from a video interview. The first scene begins after a woman mentions that her Barbie Dream House was cable-ready. After a man says that he would like to see Barbie get a zit, Barbie is faced with just that dilemma.

This strategy is successful on several levels. It’s a charmingly obvious device in keeping with much of the humor of the show, which is anything but subtle. The interviews also take some of the burden of originality off the Rudely Elegants’ shoulders. Certainly Barbie’s look at the dark side of the American dream is nothing new in this city of Coed Prison Sluts and Lobo-a-Gogo. But by acknowledging that other people have given them the ideas for their show, the Rudely Elegants admit they’re simply recycling old material in an inventive new way. We can’t fault them for doing the same old thing because they admit it themselves. Culture this.

On the deepest level, the video interviews ground the show–which might otherwise seem mindless–in our current world: a Barbie doll is a remarkably accurate reminder of our neuroses about gender and sexuality. Most of the women in the videos have fond memories of shopping for their Barbies and dressing them. Most of the men have violent and/or sexual memories of undressing and then dismembering their sisters’ dolls. So when Mr. Matel introduces Barbie with great fanfare as “the one creation to hold back the women’s movement for 20 years,” or when Barbie says to her audience, “Thank you for supporting me and buying me,” the effect is sobering.

Most disturbing are the little girls interviewed in the videos, all of whom innocently explain how much they delight in taking their Barbies shopping or dressing them in nice clothes. These are the moments that give this show its real power, demonstrating that the grotesque stereotypes lampooned onstage, stereotypes we equate with the 50s and 60s, are still being absorbed by our youngest generation.

Barbie the Fantasies puts onstage those things that our culture, symbolized by the Barbie doll, denies, hiding them behind the fantasy of Barbie and Ken “respectability” (a concept the Rudely Elegants clearly want no part of). The show is full of “deviant” sexuality, including bondage, pedophilia, and homosexuality; and the women actually have “bad” feelings, including homicidal anger. There is something truly liberating about hearing Ken call Barbie a bitch and hearing Barbie call Ken a fairy, no matter how politically incorrect it may be. (Perhaps it’s liberating because it’s politically incorrect.) The humor works because it’s difficult to imagine Barbie and Ken–read “the American nuclear family”–being like that. But somehow we wish they could. It’s perfect, then, to include so much footage of the gay pride parade, showing a reality that many people in our society also refuse to believe exists.

The Rudely Elegants have painted a disturbing and accurate picture of what is fundamentally sick in our American psyche, yet that portrait remains hysterically funny. The combination seems almost impossible. But as gay culture has known for years, camping it up can be healing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.