During performances of "Crazy Song," a variation on the Patsy Cline favorite, Boulder's Lisa Wagner displays an impressive voice--or maybe two. She delivers the ditty's familiar lines in a heartfelt croon but is continually interrupted by a demonic alter-ego who recalls Linda Blair during the possession scenes from The Exorcist. While in the latter mode, she ejaculates slurs such as "fucking psycho bitch!" like a Tourette's sufferer with a bad attitude.
No, Wagner isn't a schizophrenic: She just plays one on stage. Along with her partner in rhyme, Nina Berezina, she's created Two Women, No Mascara, an original comedy piece that thankfully avoids both the stereotypes associated with stand-up routines and the brand of predictable, audience-directed improvisation that's threatening to become the bane of happy hours everywhere. Instead, Wagner and Berezina deliver sketch comedy a la vintage Saturday Night Live, complete with rapid-fire costume changes and a degree of sheer physical bravado that one might not expect from a couple of otherwise well-behaved Colorado gals. Just as important, the two have a keen instinct for pop-song parody--and the wisdom to know which performers need to be taken down a notch. Witness Wagner's portrayal of "Alana Morissette" throughout "You Ought to Pay," a tune that applies the histrionics of a certain Canadian alterna-queen to lyrics about, of all things, a rent dispute.
The real Morissette would no doubt find this needling "ironic." Others, however, will be surprised to discover just how good-natured and affectionate it is. Wagner and Berezina certainly want to amuse, but not at anyone else's expense. "I am disgusted by comedians who get laughs by poking fun at people and putting people down," Berezina says. She's equally allergic to gender-bashing and creaky gags about leaving the toilet seat up. According to her, "I think that giving people more of a real, genuine story line and characters to relate to is much more rewarding for the performers and the people on the receiving end."
An example of this strategy is "Scale Song," in which Wagner turns once-painful memories of childhood weight struggles into a pseudo-Broadway vamp complete with a rollicking chorus and waist-high leg kicks. Also borrowing from the Broadway theme is "Old Lady Medley," in which Wagner and Berezina portray crotchety octogenarian sisters who bicker about subjects such as Alzheimer's and "sexually transmuted diseases." Other sketches include a sendup of the open-stage poetry movement, with warmed-over beatnik verse that might cut too close to the bone for Kerouac wannabes; a faux advertisement for a doggie spa that promises to discipline canines without squelching the higher--or lower--impulses of their inner puppies; and an impersonation of a Shirley MacLaine apostle that Berezina reveals was inspired by "every new-age woman I know in Boulder--plus my rolfer." Two Women doesn't always work (there are a couple of one-joke routines that wear thin very quickly), but when it does, you're reminded that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when comedy actually was funny.
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The fictional personages who populate Two Women were born a little less than a year ago, during a brief period when Wagner was staying at Berezina's place. As Berezina tells it, "We've always had a good rapport with each other, both creatively and as friends." Before long, they were holding entire conversations in voices other than their own. Trouble was, Wagner and Berezina were having too much fun slipping into the skins of their creations to actually get anything done. Enter director Kali McGurk, best known to locals for her work with Boulder's Turning the Wheel Productions. McGurk's presence led to a five-night-a-week rehearsal regimen that honed and tightened the hour-plus extravaganza. The effort paid off when the project premiered last June in Boulder; Wagner and Berezina played to packed--and enthusiastic--houses, and representatives from several local arts organizations were impressed enough to offer the women marketing and other support. If things go as well during the show's Denver bow, Wagner and Berezina plan to extend their bookings to the end of the year.
"We really seem to have struck a chord with people," Berezina says--and she thinks she knows why: "We happen to be some of the few women who are out there doing this type of comedy." She adds, "I don't think it's generally accepted for women to be funny in public."
If that's true, the current run of Two Women, No Mascara could be a short one indeed. Wagner, who formed her first theatrical production company at the age of nine, certainly hopes not. "I'm just happy to be doing the same thing that I was doing as a kid," she notes. "Only now I'm getting more money for it."
Two Women, No Mascara. 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, November 15-16, and Saturday, November 22, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $10, 545-2498.