Cell of a Good Time
Cell Block Sirens of 1953
Cell Block Sirens of 1953is a campy take on women's prison movies -- both mainstream and pornographic -- which plays on the gleeful general assumption that these places seethe with sadism and forbidden sex. The play begins with a drumroll. Then we see Hope standing in front of a magistrate with a guitar beside her, like Marlon Brando in the opening scene of the Sidney Lumet movie The Fugitive Kind -- except that Hope's wearing a starchy full-skirted frock. Played by Chris Whyde in drag, Hope is weeping and trembling as she's sentenced to ninety days in jail.
Pretty soon, our heroine meets her cellmates: tall, beautiful Queenie, the acknowledged leader, played by Kristin Teig Torres; innocent, weepy Pearl (Teresa Harris), who's suffered every oppression known to woman; aristocratic Gwendolyn (Suzanne Connors Nepi), imprisoned for kleptomania; slutty Shanghai Mabel, brought to hilarious life by Shelly Bordas; and Schatze Laverne -- another drag turn, this one by Blaine Daniel. A lot of the scenes tackle the staples of prison drama. Likethe Birdman of Alcatraz, Hope discovers a little non-human friend; however, it's neither bird nor mouse, but an alligator in a shoe box. Queenie maintains power by playing the inmates against each other and against the matron. When Hope is condemned to solitary confinement, she begins by counting bricks to preserve her sanity and ends up a hopeless, shrieking mess. Need I say that the sadistic matron, played by Steven Miles, kills inmates at will and, wearing wicked black gloves, inflicts frequent body-cavity searches?
Cell Block Sirens also plays homage to the conventions of musical comedy. Having shed her shyness, Hope forces the other women through a dance rehearsal that evokes every such sequence you've ever seen, from A Chorus Line to Fosse, calling out the count -- "five, six, seven, eight" -- while the others stumble helplessly through their moves. The women sing one of those wistful, longin'-to-be-free songs, "Train to Anywhere," but with some unexpected lyrics. Add a nod to the Theatre Group's own recent smash, Cabaret and an insanely funny sendup of the saccharine "Do Re Mi" from The Sound of Music, and you're more than ready for Steven Miles's showstopping number, à la Gypsy. The music is more referential than original, but it's cleverly done and performed full-out and with diabolical glee. Here's a sample of the lyrics: "Women should not be caged/It fucks up their makeup/And makes them enraged."
The evening is also full of terrible puns, and writers Andrew Shoffner and Christopher Willard can't let words like "hoeing," "cracking" or "rocks" pass without comment and embellishment.
What makes this silly evening so much fun is the zest of the performers. Chris Whyde plays Hope with wide-eyed conviction, striking just the right balance of complete immersion in the role and commentary on it. His quavering voice, mournful, accusatory little moues and uncertain movements as he tries to approximate jumping jacks are priceless. He gets a lot of help, too. Miles is an amazing matron, with a huge backside and a tiny, disapproving mouth. Teig Torres knows how to dominate the stage as Queenie; Connors Nepi reveals an unexpectedly pretty singing voice; Harris pouts seductively as Pearl; Daniel is an appropriately sullen Schatze; Caleb Murray is effective as the doctor. With her hair sticking out in two bunches at the sides of her face and her jittery, infectious energy, Bordas seems to be having far too much fun as Shanghai Mabel, but she manages to spread the enjoyment around. You had to be there to understand just how she could make a line like, "I saved a roll from lunch for you," so laugh-out-loud funny.
After Cell Block Sirens, you may well leave the theater humming and swinging your hips. Just be careful where you do it. You wouldn't want to end up with... gasp!... the Cell Block Sirens.
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