Super Supergroup

Tucson heavyweights team up for 'Five Women Wearing the Same Dress' at Arizona Onstage

When musicians who are well known for other projects come together to form a new band—usually lasting only a short while—these all-star groups become known as supergroups.

The same thing goes for theater. So you might say that Arizona Onstage's briskly entertaining comedy Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is a supergroup production for Tucson.

Consider its all-star power. The performance was the brainchild of two well-known actors: Carrie Hill, founder of Sacred Chicken Productions, and Amy Erbe, a mainstay of Winding Road Theater Ensemble. Both women perform in the show, playing two of the five bridesmaids, and it's directed by Terry Erbe, a frequent Winding Road collaborator.

This trio teamed up with Arizona Onstage artistic director Kevin Johnson, who provided a space and production support. And three other Tucson women were enlisted to play the other bridesmaids.

OK, we're not exactly talking fame along the lines of the Traveling Wilburys (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison), but Five Women has a lot of prolific local theater-makers under one banner.

You can see why Erbe and Hill wanted to do the play: Five Women provides meaty roles for, well, five women actors. Such a banquet of nuanced parts for women is unfortunately a rarity.

The play takes place entirely in the bedroom of a sister of the bride. Though we never see the bride, the five bridesmaids make frequent trips to this cozy space. There, they can refresh their makeup, swig champagne, smoke a joint, cry over feckless men and complain about the bride. The brightly colored and meticulously detailed bedroom set was provided by Arizona Onstage regular Michael Boyd.

The room belongs to Meredith (Carley Preston), a reluctant bridesmaid in her sister's wedding.

Then we have Frances (Debbie Runge), an earnest relative who frequently exclaims "I'm a Christian!" to explain why she doesn't participate in the activities that the others so enjoy (smoking, drinking, swearing and having sex). Runge is very funny but a little over the top; then again, this suits her broadly drawn character.

Frances' diametric opposite is world-weary "bad girl" Trisha, played with lovely, restrained charm by Hill. Trisha claims to have slept with about "a hundred" men. And, she says, "Not a single one of them has made any difference in my life."

Trisha and Georgeanne (Erbe) are longtime friends of the bride, but their memories of her are less than rosy. Georgeanne, who enters the play clutching a champagne bottle and dramatically weeping, is still carrying a torch for the unseen Lothario, Tommy Valentine, who was once engaged to the bride.

Erbe's performance has an easygoing charm. In contrast to her awkward, drunken Honey in last year's Winding Road production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Erbe's Georgeanne gets sillier, happier and more compelling the more she drinks.

Though he's not onstage, heartbreaker Valentine looms large: It seems he's a compulsive womanizer, who's had some kind of sleazy interaction with all five of the bridesmaids, even lesbian Mindy (Lori Hunt).

Mindy, sister of the groom, is struggling to control her rage at her treatment by her traditional-values Southern family (her partner was not allowed to come to the rehearsal dinner, for instance), as well as her dislike of the bride.

None of the bridesmaids is thrilled to be here, and their ire is outwardly directed at the dress they all forced to don.

Designed by Shana Nunez and constructed by Andrea Young, the puffy, fuchsia-colored bridesmaid dresses are wonderfully ridiculous, like Barbie prom dresses conceived in a fever dream.

The playwright, Alan Ball, is known mostly for his film and television work. He wrote the screenplay for the 1999 movie American Beauty and is the force behind HBO hits Six Feet Under and True Blood. Written in 1993, Five Women is one of his few theatrical contributions.

You can see in Five Women that Ball would be a natural fit for the screen—his dialogue is chatty and realistic, and he has a devastatingly good ear for a joke.

The laughs are fast and furious in Five Women. But lacking any central driving action, the play meanders, shifting its focus on first one, then another, of the central characters. It's long, too, and occasionally feels a bit disjointed.

Knowing of Ball's TV success, one can't help but feel that the play would have been better divided into short TV-like episodes. For instance, toward the end, a lone male character appears. Tripp (Robert Anthony Peters) is an usher who's developed a flirtation with Trisha. The two of them have a long scene in which they negotiate the terms of their planned wedding hook-up.

On the one hand, this scene is totally charming. Peters has a natural charisma, and his entrance onstage adds a delightful frisson to the play. He and Hill generate a believable chemistry behind their banter.

But the scene feels dramatically pointless. We're nearly an hour and half into the play, and the introduction of a new character requires an awkward shifting of gears.

The audience has already been asked to care about Meredith's angst, Georgeanne's love life, Tommy Valentine's sleazy ways, Mindy's anger, Frances' naïveté and Trisha's cynicism. The addition of a love plot for Trisha (with a character we are just meeting) feels like one flavor too many.

I'm an admirer of Ball's television writing, but I'd say that Five Women is not a great play. Still, it gives five talented women (and one talented man), a chance to shine.

And that makes for one super supergroup evening of theater.

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