Festival of Comedy
Griffin Theatre Company
at the Theatre Building
Quick, which of the following is obscene: a woman juggling dildos, or two bare-breasted women embracing? The lyrics to an old Beatles tune (“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than be with another man”), or a lesbian in pasties entertaining her friends with “I Wanna Be Loved By You”? If you’re not sure, you can compare the options by seeing these productions. Girl Party–the companion piece to Party, a popular all-male gay comedy–offers straight talk about lesbian sex, some nudity, and a little sexual horseplay. Zebra Crossing Theatre’s An Act of Obscenities, part of the Griffin Theatre’s “Festival of Comedy,” investigates through music, monologue, and performance the notion that “obscenity” is something that can be measured, defined, or legislated.
The program describes An Act of Obscenities as “a show about what’s nasty and who decides.” It opens with its three performers in judges’ robes, rattling off a list of what they consider obscene, in the strictest Oxford Dictionary sense: Spam, snot, the Imperial Chemical Corporation, and the salary of a pro baseball player. From there they draw on everything from congressional transcripts to popular songs, demonstrating how censors have struggled through the ages to cope with the always-slippery definition of obscenity. In Queen Victoria’s day, a piece of literature was banned if it “stirred tumescence”–the Queen is presented here in a rhinestone tiara, contentedly eating Spam, and assuring us that one doesn’t actually view the filth oneself. One hears about it from a reliable source, and then bans it.
Creator-director Susan V. Booth and her performers draw a straight line from Queen Victoria to the NEA, weaving a tapestry of quotes from both sides of the obscenity issue: we hear from Jesse Helms as well as Frank Zappa. But the women are at their best when they air their own ideas about what’s obscene. Diana Slickman has a hilarious monologue in which she delightedly indulges in the word “motherfucker”–you can’t get arrested for saying it anymore–only to observe finally, with some disappointment, that the word has lost its power through overuse. Barbara Babbitt’s seemingly innocent torch songs effectively convey the irony of enforcing one standard of morality while other, more subversive forms of obscenity are encouraged–a certain “ugly violence they like to call passion.” Babbitt sings, in fair Motown style, of the man who abuses her in countless ways, while her backup group sings that there is nothing for her to do but take it because “oh, he can be so sweet to me, too.” The two backup singers end this montage, the best of the show, by putting Babbitt’s arm in a sling and bandaging her mouth shut as she attempts to sing “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
In the end, this show tries to explain where America stands on obscenity today: “If it gives you a boner, it’s nasty–unless it has a whole lot of literary, artistic, or scientific value.” Booth and her crew make it clear that we, the consumers, are the ones who must be in charge of quantifying that value.
By that measuring stick, where would Girl Party stand? There is every possibility it will give someone a boner, and it probably boasts more social than artistic value–after all, there aren’t many comedies about lesbians, and why should that portion of the community be deprived of wacky situational humor? There may be a call to arms here. As one of the characters says, “Dispel the stereotype! Show the world a lesbian can have a sense of humor. Let’s be a whole roomful of funny lesbians–I don’t think that’s ever happened before!” I’m for it, I just wish they’d been given a slightly better play to be funny in.
Certainly Girl Party is not obscene, either in the subversive or obvious categories. It’s–well, sort of cute. Kind of heartwarming. If one of the major networks decided to run a sitcom about seven lesbian friends, this would be it, cleaned up only slightly. Written by Virginia Smiley and David Dillon and directed by Dillon and Marlene Zuccaro, Girl Party follows the formula that made Party such a success: seven friends gather to play a truth-or-dare game, during which secrets are divulged and challenges, mostly of a sexual nature, are extended. This leads to “testimonial” monologues mixed in with some groping, kissing, giggling, and light pornography. There is no conflict, and the only tension comes from wondering who’s going to take her bra off next.
Incidentally, Girl Party does not have a quarter of the nudity of Party. And frankly it’s sexier that way.
So what makes this production so enjoyable? Perhaps the sense that you’re peeking unbidden into a slumber party and might hear something juicy. Perhaps it’s refreshing to hear women talk about sex with other women straightforwardly. Perhaps it’s the excellent ensemble (Elaine Dame and Kristen Swanson are particularly charismatic), who give their characters so much easy charm that, paradoxically, they’re all too darn likable to be believable at times. And finally, there’s something sweet-natured about this production (a quality I missed in Party), a sense of fun that is rarely at the expense of anyone else, a true sense of sisterhood. Ending the show with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” might be corny, but it’s on the money.
It’s such a joy to find a play that skewers new-age mysticism. “Believe all is well, and all will be well,” says Aunt Guenevere in Robert Kerr’s Six Characters in Search of Water. But Guenevere also changes her name on an hourly basis, plays bridge with an invisible partner, and thinks she is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And all is not well.
In this futuristic black comedy, the earth is running out of water, barricades and bandits are everywhere, and one family is trying to cope. This Griffin Theatre production, playing with An Act of Obscenities as part of the “Festival of Comedy,” is as edgy as it is funny, with terrific performances all around under the direction of G. Scott Thomas. As the head of the family, Terry Hard comes off as a slightly stoned Ward Cleaver, searching out suffering with just a touch too much masochistic fervor. Rick Schnier plays the 15-year-old son, Barth, with wild-eyed control, quoting Nietzsche as he trains to be the next uebermensch. Teri Marinkovich is appropriately adenoidal and oblivious as Barth’s young sister, and Jennifer Chervenick is appropriately bewildered as cousin Louise, the voice of reason in this wilderness.
But the play really belongs to Guenevere, who is terribly hung up on the books of Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach. “Reality is always changing,” she insists, and perhaps that’s true, but by insisting on manipulating her reality she impinges on the reality of others. As Guenevere, Kimberly Muller has the myopic intensity of the truly deranged, turning her attention beyond the current catastrophe to an alternative reality where seagulls play prettily above nonexistent waves.