Filler Women's Rites

Clothed In Humor, Borderlands Theater's New Show Examines Middle-ClassIssues.
By Margaret Regan

IT'S NOT OFTEN that a costume gets a belly laugh. In Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, the new Borderlands Theater production, not only does a dress get a major guffaw before any actor utters a word, it's actually a star of the show.

The dress in question is a bridesmaid's dress. Seen five times over on every woman in the play, a comedy wherein a revolving set of hapless bridesmaids hide out in an upstairs bedroom during a wedding reception, it's not a pretty sight. Designed to perfection by Zan Griffith, it's a Little Bo Peep confection in pink satin with gigantic leg o' mutton sleeves, cascading skirts and a back zipper that tends to open down to the waist at the most inopportune moments. To top it all off, there's a ludicrous straw hat that heads up to the stratosphere.

"We look like the Flying Nun," fumes the bride's sister Meredith, an Angry Young Woman deliciously played by Sara Eileen LaWall. Meredith throws a black leather jacket over the pink every time she gets a chance to stomp back to her flowery childhood bedroom. "You look like a lamp," she berates her hopelessly sweet Christian cousin Frances, played to perfect pitch by Aleta Palmer.

The ridiculous dress is just one reason that the bridesmaids keep retreating to the bedroom during this extravagantly funny--and raunchy--comedy of manners set in the modern South. They mostly don't know each other well but they draw close in the face of their common enemies. They're hiding from the unseen bride, Tracy, a disagreeable Southern belle who's metamorphosed into a bossy career woman. (She's icily informed her sister Tracy that the Flying Nun hat is "not optional" at the reception.) They're hiding from mothers besotted by the rules of etiquette, from aunts who want to marry them off, from the handsome rake whom most of them have slept with. They come upstairs to pig out on pilfered weddding food, to swig Jack Daniels, to take a drag on a joint, to debate the merits of rigid Christianity versus free speech, to rail against men who are as "limp as wet toast."

Most of all they come up whenever they feel the need for a bracing dose of female camaraderie. When all else fails to cheer them, they fall back on making fun of the dress.

Image "Something about this dress makes me feel like Bigfoot," laments the clumsy Mindy (Elizabeth Heichelbech,) lesbian sister of the groom, as her lethal swirling skirt sends delicate things flying through the bedroom. "I'm being held hostage by my underwear," cries Georgeanne (Suzi List) of the rigid bustier her Bo Peep gear requires.

In a ground-breaking essay called "The Female World of Love and Ritual," the historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg described the contemporary wedding as the last vestige of the many female rites of the 19th century. Playwright Alan Ball has unerringly tuned into this female world. So irrelevant do men seem to the goings-on that it's a shock toward the end of the play when one finally penetrates into the female space of the bedroom, his blinding black and white tuxedo contrasting with the bridesmaids' pink. This fella is the alluring Tripp (Dwayne Tripp), a wickedly evolved male who's in hot pursuit of the cynical Trisha (Caroline Reed), the "reigning queen of bad rep."

The play sends up the studied rituals of the showy American middle-class wedding (bridesmaids' dresses actually are meant to ape the costumes of the long-ago royal courts) at the same time that it uses the wedding as a lens to examine the lives and loves of contemporary American women. With the exception of the innocent Frances, the women in the play are about as far from the girlish Bo Peep ideal as they can be. Five Women delves into some touchy modern issues--abortion, childhood sexual abuse, anorexia, discrimination against lesbians, adultery--but it's hardly a sociological tract. In fact, it's a hoot.

The script is wonderfully crafted, but the play's success depends almost entirely on the star turns doled out by the five female players. Veteran Tucson performer List is funny and moving as Georgeanne, a married, heading-over-the-hill Southern belle who can't get over her lust for the indifferent rake. ("I'd like to date Jesus," she sighs at one point.) The beguiling Heichelbech plays Mindy with a combination of goofiness and humor. Reed is bawdy as Trisha, the resident "ho" with a heart of gold, but the big grin she keeps plastered on her face throughout is a bit over the top. And nearly all of the actresses fade in and out of those Southern accents, which might have been better left untried.

Director Chris Wilken handles all the proceedings with a light touch, allowing his actors the leeway to deliver performances as delicious as wedding cake, as bubbly as champagne, and as sharp as bitters.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, a production of Borderlands Theater, continues through September 7 at the PCC Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $10, with discounts for seniors and students available at the Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday performances. For more information or reservations call 882-7406. TW

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