For anyone who likes sitcom-style playlets in which characters with low self-esteem point blaming fingers at their childhood, the media, the men in their life and/or the healing professions, Women Aloud: Artistic Estrofest '99 might prove illuminating or even therapeutic. But those who easily tire of gripe sessions set in shopworn venues like a psychiatrist's office, a busybody's kitchen and the reception area of a doctor's office might instead flip through the latest fashion rag or tune in to some talk radio: Either will be just as informative, twice as titillating and, given the Estrofest's $16 ticket price, considerably less expensive.
The tidy little dramas are being presented at The Shop Theatre by genoa's mother presents, a local company that's adopted "all women, all the time" as its slogan. As if to underscore that motto, the gray stage floor is adorned with a black line drawing of a corpulent female figure with ovaries that are suggested by a couple of large spirals. Smartly directed by Kathryn Gray, the plays as a whole are decently acted and visually interesting enough to mitigate some of each work's glaring shortcomings, and the performers articulate the peculiar sensitivities that lie beneath the surface of each character's quirky behavior. That's most evident during the evening's main attraction, Madeleine George's The Most Massive Woman Wins, a turgid play about the weighty apprehensions of four liposuction patients-to-be. "I'm here for the ass and inner-thigh combo," quips Sabine (kryssi wyckoff martin), who is surprisingly upfront about the fact that her stocky frame, like most people's, might benefit from some cosmetic rearranging. "I'm about to have my body surgically removed," declares Rennie (Melanie Owen), a waiflike creature whose body-image obsessions seem to have psychological origins arising from an obvious need to rid herself of excess corporeal baggage. On the other side of the waiting room, Cel (Paula Sperry) babbles a nursery rhyme as she contemplates shedding large amounts of weight in order to allay her husband's fear that "fat women go crazy more than thin girls do" (a theory, we learn, that's based on the notion that fatty body parts rob the brain of its blood supply). And Carly (Diana Wziontka), whose weight-to-height ratio seems well within the normal range, confesses that childhood mantras about people starving "in Denmark or Detroit" have influenced her poor eating habits. "Mama was not always right," she softly says.
Although the dialogue is spiked with a few humorous observations, the characters' detailed confessions (one of which includes the pathetic -- and dramatically pointless -- line, "The really sad thing is, I have no one to blame") seem more suited to a narrowly focused Frontline documentary than a theatrical life-study with universal scope. It's difficult, after all, to sympathize with characters whose problems, cares and woes are emphasized almost to the exclusion of any redeeming qualities. Still, spurred on by a whistle-blowing, drill-instructor-like Sperry, the women manage to connect with the audience by recounting the events that contributed to their unhealthy concerns about weight. Sperry, in particular, expresses her character's plight with admirable, if sometimes brutal, honesty. Both Owen and Wziontka demonstrate considerable poignancy and humor in dealing with the complexities of a condition that's more often propelled by self-loathing than self-love, and martin is credible as the plain-spoken Sabine.
The eighty-minute program's other two offerings serve as brief preludes to George's drama. Local playwright Tami Canaday's Paula's Visit explores the interchangeability of the roles of patient and therapist. Apart from an amusingly maniacal portrait from Maggie Ebert and a few interesting images near the end, though, the fifteen-minute work is fairly predictable. And Steven Packard's At the End of the Rope takes an offbeat look at the nonchalant sadism of a pair of bored, doughnut-chomping housewives. But even though performers Joan Staniunas and Janet Chamberlain do their best to lend some depth to Packard's twelve-minute drama, they can't entirely counterbalance dialogue that's peppered with lines like, "Holland reminds me of dikes (pause) and windmills and tulips and big noisy shoes." Which is but one of several moments that make one wish this well-intentioned program had amounted to a full-fledged celebration of femininity instead of the semi-serious lukewarm endeavor it ultimately becomes.
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