Heard on the Street
Filled with more raunch than a Friars Club roast, the first part of Bag Ladies Ball is initially hard to swallow. The interactive dinner-theater show, being staged in a second-floor meeting room at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in central Denver, is playwright and director Melvyn Benetti's response to the 1999 murders of seven homeless men in Denver -- and, more important, to the light sentence given to a juvenile convicted of stomping one of the men to death. While most of Act One's antics are painfully gratuitous, the performers finally cut through the filth near the very end to communicate a sobering message.
Of course, the pervasive gutter humor might be intended to jolt us out of our complacency and/or open our eyes to a way of life that's vastly different from our own. That idea would hold more water if Benetti and company were to trust their better creative instincts and shape the attacks into a cohesive assault on society's apathy toward the homeless. As it is, most of the tasteless happenings are too disconnected or off-the-wall to send that sort of message; they come off as rank and pathetic instead of constructively offensive. Perhaps the best example of this is when, out of the blue, one character picks up a tampon and wonders aloud whether it fell out (followed by a look up a woman's skirt to check). It's hardly a thought-provoking episode -- unless it's the kind that prompts patrons to consider demanding a refund of the $41 admission price (which includes a decent meal, served cafeteria style, at intermission; drinks are extra).
It's a shame, because the play, disguised as a live TV variety show being simulcast over the Internet and involving bag ladies as contestants, has so much going for it. There is the disquieting, haunting invocation that begins The Bag Lady Pageant -- a 108-year-old event, one character notes, that's taken place ever since Augusta Tabor, spurned wife of Leadville silver magnate Horace Tabor, devoted herself to helping the less fortunate following the silver crash of 1893. (After Horace jilted her for Baby Doe, Augusta became a crusader for the Pioneer Ladies Aid Society in Denver; ironically enough, she didn't do much to help Baby Doe, who later descended into penury and froze to death on the floor of her tiny miner's shack.) As we're asked to silently and respectfully remember the recently slain -- and contestant number one, Priscilla Davis, who, we're told, lies in a local hospital, the victim of a savage beating -- the mood quickly changes from raucous to somber. And the actors' recounting of the colorful history of the events begins to resonate.
So do a few scenes of direct confrontation, such as when one of the women, incensed at the notion that the homeless naturally invite the dangers visited upon them, charges into the seating area and screams at the audience, "We're not the ones killing people and blowing up schools -- you are." And when the ladies gather near the end of the play to sing a stirring anthem, their heartfelt pleas rival anything to be found at the most impassioned revival: "Go out and tell our story/Let it echo far and wide/How justice was our battle and justice was denied/Make them hear you," they sing.
In all likelihood, that message will soar with even greater power when Benetti gets the chance to rework Act One and exploit its vulgarities for dramatic as opposed to mere shock-value effect. Even before that, however, Bag Ladies Ball winds up being a bold, sometimes courageous way to address a subject that no one -- least of all, it seems, the highest authorities in government -- cares to touch with a ten-foot social program.
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