Live Bait Theater

“Anyone can take her clothes off. But only an artist can stretch the boundaries of your imagination.” These words could be coming from performance artist Karen Finley, whose use of nudity has prompted right-wing attacks on “pornographic” avant-garde art. In Sharon Evans’s terrific new comedy, Girls, Girls, Girls, Live on Stage, Totally Rude, these words are spoken by one Chartreuse Moon, a stripper in an Uptown dive called Babe’s Lounge. A recovering alcoholic who dreams of becoming a “white Josephine Baker,” Chartreuse makes up for the ravages of age and booze with a defiantly exhibitionistic stage style that combines in-your-face athletics with a knack for bizarre imagery that’s so vulgar it’s mind-bending.

When Dot, a slim, pretty newcomer, applies for a dancing job at Babe’s, Chartreuse reacts with intense ambivalence–arguing on Dot’s behalf with the skeptical club owner and teaching Dot the tricks of the trade on one hand, but quivering with paranoid competitiveness on the other. But Dot has more on her mind than vying for Chartreuse’s tacky throne. A self-described “postfeminist” performance artist and photographer, Dot says she has come to this low-rent strip joint to pick up some moves for her stage work. (“I was in a performance piece once where I rolled around naked in red, white, and blue paint while singing the national anthem.”) But her real intent is to document the nightlife netherworld inhabited by Chartreuse and the other employees at Babe’s for a photo essay “examining the performance persona in a blue-collar culture.” Dot takes her photos–and the club’s denizens find them all too revealing when they attend her gallery opening.

There, in a nutshell, is the simple, streamlined story into which Evans artfully integrates a wonderful collection of characters, some marvelously funny dialogue, and a hefty dose of disturbing dialectic that could make Girls, Girls, Girls quite controversial. The clash of mind-sets and motivations that Chartreuse and Dot represent raises basic, valuable questions about sexuality, ego, money, and artistic intention, and does so in a pointedly funny way that some audiences might find uncomfortably sharp, especially in the current arts-bashing climate created by the “Gang of Fear” (as Village Voice writer C. Carr has so aptly dubbed the censorious cabal headed by Jesse Helms and Phyllis Schlafly).

Certainly, anyone looking for a call to arms for the rights of artists–or a whitewash for the failures and self-indulgences that must inevitably accompany artistic experimentation–won’t find them in this play. Evans isn’t interested in simple answers and slogans; she’s interested in people. She’s committed to the value of art, which is that it teaches, but she knows that its lessons are often painful, because they strip away at value systems to explore the emotions underneath.

That’s what happens in Girls, Girls, Girls to Dot and the folks at Babe’s. It happens amusingly, because Evans’s knack for crisp, crackling comic repartee is so superb. It happens believably, because Evans never condescends to her characters. Babe’s, like so many establishments on which it’s based, is much more than a workplace. It’s a home populated by an extended family. Rough-talking, warm-hearted Babe has taken over the role of mother; shy Lenny, a cop who dreams of becoming a jazz drummer, insinuates himself into the position of stepfather; Billy, the smug and sleazy MC with a sexual pun for every occasion, and Tab, the barback who takes care of the strippers’ tassels and wants to become a professional designer, are the troublesome but beloved surrogate sons. In each case, Evans avoids easy stereotyping and mockery; these characters are full of heart and humanity.

Evans’s intent is beautifully executed by director Mary McAuliffe, who keeps the actors’ energy low-key so that their hilarious dialogue seems casual and accidental rather than glib and self-aware. Catherine Evans is naturally charming as Dot, but she uses that quality to bring out her character’s darkest side as she tries to fit into a weird new environment. Carol Kent and Russ Flack, wonderful clowns in several past Friends of the Zoo revues, are perfectly natural as Babe and Billy; they never compromise on their characters’ coarseness for the sake of easy lovability, yet by the end of the play you can’t help but fall in love with them. John Judd has his off-duty cop Lenny down pat–the skimpy little laugh, the shuffling walk, the bland poker face that hides a maelstrom of desires. David Cromer completely eschews the mannerisms most actors would rely on to signal Tab’s latent homosexuality, suggesting instead of stating his character’s internal struggle.

Standing out against the other actors, as she should, is Paula Killen as Chartreuse. Killen gives a bravura performance as a woman unashamed of flailing her crotch in the faces of strangers but terrified of sharing her quiet, thoughtful side with even a good friend. For Killen to do this, of course, she must be capable of twice the brazenness of her complex, fabulous character; she’s up to the task, taking the stage with larger-than-life force as she bumps and grinds seminude through the intimate Live Bait space–transformed into a tawdry Hawaiian-themed barroom by David Csicsko’s brilliant stage design–then quietly drawing the audience into Chartreuse’s secret, growing imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/H. Rosanove.