Cranbourne Again

Nancy Cranbourne has a devoted following in Boulder, and if you check out Vulva Riot, her new solo show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, you'll see why.

Although naming theater pieces after genitalia seems to be a trend these days, I must admit, I wish Cranbourne hadn't called this one Vulva Riot. The title seems forced, and it promises one of those raucous "all-middle-aged-girls-together" evenings that are getting a little tiresome. Sure, there are some funny, sexually tinged scenes in Vulva Riot, but nothing outrageous; instead, much of the work is gently wistful. And if you go expecting a reprise of Two Women Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization, the hysterical -- in every sense of the word -- canter through menopause that Cranbourne staged with Patti Dobrowolski a couple of years back, you'll be disappointed.

Toward the back of the museum's small, square stage stand four cardboard figures labeled Mom, Dad, Frank and Nancy. Vulva Riot is a sequence of scenes about Cranbourne's family and her growing-up years. Some of these vignettes are humorous, some touching, some merely eccentric. What makes the show work is the fact that Cranbourne is a brilliant performer, physically and vocally expressive, and an extraordinary mimic.

In an early sketch, Cranbourne's mother -- a proper '50s-style housewife -- waits for her husband to come home for dinner; the humor lies simply in the minutiae of the wait, as "Mom" attends to her hair, freshens up her lipstick, takes a demure pose on the sofa, legs crossed at the ankle, becomes anxious, checks her lipstick again, and so on. Through these small actions, Cranbourne creates a character that simultaneously reminds us of every full-skirted sitcom mom and remains endearingly individual.

You can imagine a very young Nancy Cranbourne observing her relatives and neighbors with a gleeful eye, picking up on every eccentricity and practicing being these other people in front of the mirror, but these are affectionate as well as satiric portraits. There's a scene at Uncle Ted and Aunt Corinne's, when Uncle Ted finds Nancy and her brother Frank dancing naked to the Big Bopper, becomes incensed and sends them off to the bedroom. Aunt Corinne, who owes her slushy speech to a combination of booze and ill-fitting false teeth, comforts the miscreants with cocoa and food.

Frank's description of the techniques he uses to piss off little sister Nancy is sweetly funny. So is the sequence in which Nancy teaches a school friend who "really liked hard things," such as door knobs and desk edges, how to masturbate. We witness young Nancy's fascination with the glamorous Greek family next door, which, in its passion and seductiveness, seems to have stepped straight from the movie Never on Sunday. Nancy feels a mix of yearning and envy for these people. She loves the mother, loves and quarrels with their school-aged daughter. Filled with wonder, she witnesses the baptism of their new baby. And when the family moves away, she's heartbroken.

Cranbourne's description of how she fell in love with her decidedly non-arty engineer husband, Mike, elicits chuckles of recognition from the women in the audience, and her mother's rapturous response to news of the engagement -- "Thank you. Oh, thank you" -- rouses guffaws.

There are touching scenes too, particularly a loving tribute to Cranbourne's father and a description of how he died of a massive infection under the supervision of nurse Margaret, "kind and true."

Each life snippet is charming, but the pieces don't add up -- either emotionally or intellectually -- to a genuine whole. Cranbourne is a dancer, and this feels like a dance program rather than a play. If you attend, I suggest dinner at the Dushanbe Teahouse next door beforehand. Then you can think of Vulva Riot as a sort of songless after-dinner cabaret, and experience a delightful and satisfying evening out.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

Latest Stories