September 1, 2006

An arresting revival
Camp and clichés make 'Women Behind Bars' as hilarious now as it was in the

By David C. Nichols, Special to The Times

Although more than 30 years have passed since "Women Behind Bars" first
clawed its way into camp classic status, time has not deflated its dementia.
Big hair and bigger shtick still rock Tom Eyen's travesty of '50s B movies,
as the tickling revival by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company proves with
shameless effusion.

Under director-designer Jay Michael Fraley's culpable eye, an ideally cast
cellblock misses nary a tacky trick in this brazen assault on prison-chick
flicks. After a projected trailer for the 1971 schlockfest "The Big Doll
House," our feature presentation slinks into view before Fraley's
gray-striped set.

Meet the stereotypes in lockup at the Greenwich Village Women's House of
Detention, circa 1952. Puerto Rican spitfire Guadalupe (Shannon Lee Blas),
Pam Grier forerunner JoJo (Layce Ashby) and ultra-butch lifer Gloria (Brenda
Glim) are ready-made affronts to the politically correct. Southern belle
shoplifter Blanche (Karen Harris) clings to reality by her dainty
fingernails, which is more than can be said for psychotic arsonist Ada
(Kristin Elliott). Nasal-voiced tart Cheri (Jami McCoy) and sweetly lethal
Granny (Sally Norton) complete the toilet plunger-wielding slate.

Into their twisted ranks comes framed innocent Mary-Eleanor (the wonderful
Jennifer Bridge), who resembles a Vargas drawing of Judy Garland's Dorothy.
Her doe-eyed charms attract the massively corrupt, epically bewigged matron
(Sharyn Case, having a field day), to the dismay of sultry turnkey Louise
(Jessica Woodard).

Aided by actor David Beatty as various males, from idiot guard to denuded
spouse, these festive floozies attack the vulgarity and bad-acting clichés
with an ironic death grip.

Besides Fraley's set and sound, colleagues Heather Enriquez (costumes) and
Lindsey Suits (lighting) achieve low-budget nirvana. Just try not to chortle
at this rip-snorting guilty pleasure.

`Women Behind Bars'

Where: Empire Theater, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Also, 8 p.m. Sept. 21

Ends: Sept. 23

Price: $18

Contact: (714) 547-4688

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Friday, September 1, 2006

Theater: Comedy of 'Women Behind Bars' is pent-up
Review: The Rude Guerrilla staging parodying the lurid, B-movie genre falls
short of generating the big laughs.

Special to the Register

Comedy being the tough racket that it is, no one can ever say for sure
whether something scripted to evoke laughs will do so. After all, one man's
side-splitting roar of approval is another's half-hearted chuckle.
That presumption can make a show like Tom Eyen's "Women Behind Bars" a
hit-or-miss proposition. Scripted in 1974, it purports to parody the genre
of lurid, women-in-prison B movies of the '50s, yet also contains elements
of the string of B-movie exploitation flicks issued by American
International Pictures in the early '70s.
The latter are in themselves parodies of their cheapie predecessors, adding
S&M, lesbian sex and other sensational ingredients – and that's part of the
problem with Eyen's play. How do you generate laughs from a spoof of a
Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's staging gets off on the right foot, with a
black-and-white version of the trailer for 1971's "The Big Doll House,"
followed by a roster of the play's credits (including a directorial credit
for the ubiquitous, pseudonymous "Alan Smithee").
Director Jay Michael Fraley certainly has more than enough talent in his
cast to get Eyen's campy text off the ground and into the comedy
stratosphere. One major obstacle is that Eyen's script is more broad than
razor-sharp, requiring more of an over-the-top approach than Fraley applies.
The production's relaxed pacing works counter to the nature of the material.
The world Eyen depicts is best exemplified by the opening trailer – a world
of caricature personalities, harsh lighting and cheesy, brassy music. Thanks
to Heather Enriquez's costumes and Fraley's set design, this "Women" has the
right look – but Fraley's sound design and Lindsey Suits' lighting scheme
are too tame for this brand of comedy, when what's called for is something
that closely duplicates the cheap-flick sensibility.
The characters Eyen sketches are takeoffs on familiar figures from the
worlds of stage and screen. While some of Fraley's cast members crystallize
these figures, others move only partly there or stall entirely. The focal
character is Mary-Eleanor, a Snow White ingénue whose first appearance makes
her a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale. This stock "good
girl" is framed for a crime she didn't commit, immersed in a tough
environment she's hilariously ill-equipped to deal with.
Jennifer Bridge's response? Campy and ironic. Her portrayal has that
nudge-nudge, wink-wink element so needed in parody – the occasional sense
that the young woman telegraphs to us that she knows it's all a send-up.
Eyen populates his women's prison with a raft of stereotypes: The butch
lesbian (Brenda Glim), the Puerto Rican (Shannon Lee Blas), the tough black
(Layce Ashby), the Southern belle (Karen Harris), the senior citizen (Sally
Norton), the glamour girl (Jami McCoy) and the nutcase (Kristin Elliott).
For the most part, Fraley's septet gets the general feel of the parodistic
style, as some display sharper comic timing than others.
Elliott's whacked-out, rapid-fire giggling Ada, Glim's husky-voiced lifer
Gloria and Blas' syrupy, high-haired, thick-accented Guadalupe deliver
consistent laughs. McCoy's Jersey-ish, Marilyn Monroe-coiffed Cheri is close
behind, though taking the role closer to the blonde icon would surely
generate more hilarity. In their comic timing, Ashby, Harris and Norton are
less assured, leaving room for refinement.
The story's villain is The Matron, a malicious sadist (and sexed-up lesbian)
who rules the prison through fear – a female equivalent of Ernest Borgnine
in his best bad-guy roles. Sharyn Case has the right appearance, but her
portrayal is devoid of any comical juice (let alone sadism), a loud cackle
her singular trait. Making Louise, the Matron's crony (and main squeeze),
identical in looks (dig those jet-black Elvis 'dos!) to her boss is a neat
touch, but Jessica Woodard could jack up Louise's vexation at being stuck at
second banana.
David Beatty, the cast's only male, is billed as "The Man," fulfilling all
of the story's male roles – Mary-Eleanor's husband and, among others, the
prison doctor and a prison guard. Beatty's comedic skills are tentative,
with most of the laughs in his scenes left to the situations. His Goofy-like
prison guard/custodian is on the right track, but he needs to invest the
husband character with a style that mirrors that of Bridge.
"Women Behind Bars" offers loose, silly fun, and you might even catch this
staging on an evening when everything is clicking. Still, the explosive
comic energy of Rude G's production seems caged, as if waiting for a chance
to escape.
CONTACT US: Freelance writer Eric Marchese has covered entertainment for the
Register since 1984.
Sex With Handcuffs . . . Sort Of

Women Behind Bars
Thursday, September 14, 2006 - 2:00 pm

Women Behind Bars, Tom Eyen’s terrifically funny homage to—and skewering of—low-budget Hollywood sex exploitation films was first produced in 1974 and is set in the ’50s. Though it predates such twisted late-’70s TV soap operas as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and the Australian women-behind-bars gem Prisoner: Cell Block H, there are obvious parallels. Eyen, who contributed some scripts to Hartman, infuses his play with the same sense of dementia, hypercharged sexuality and tongue-in-cheek satire that proved so controversial in Hartman it was relegated to late-night viewing in most markets. The parallel with Prisoner: Cell Block H is even more pronounced: lipstick lesbians, bull dykes, working-class losers and sadistically corrupt guards unleashed in an all-women prison.

The plot isn’t much: sweet, naive ingénue Mary Eleanor (the very funny Jennifer Bridge) is nailed for a botched service-station robbery, gets seven years and is tossed into a racially mixed cauldron of sexuality and frustration, where the women fight, bicker and molest one another. But they’re united by their hatred and fear of the Nurse Ratched of this play: the prison matron (a deliciously sadistic Sharyn Case) and her henchwoman Louise (the decadently prurient Jessica Woodward). The game cast, paced by director Jay Michael Fraley, attack the already-volatile material with gusto, ratcheting up the sex, sultriness and, most important, comedy to a degree not often seen at a theater more known for dark dramas than wildly outrageous comedies.

The result is a play that is just as twisted and lusty as those shows that have helped Rude Guerrilla claim its niche as one of Southern California’s most viscerally oriented, provocative theaters. But who knew the troupe could pull something off this mind-blowingly funny?