Feminine Files

For Followers Of Bloodhut, 'Thighs And Dolls' Is A Fond Reprise Of Old Stories.Bloodhut Productions reprises old favorites.

By Dave Irwin

AM I THE only person who thinks that menstruation is of questionable entertainment value? In a segment called "Aunt Flo' " in the latest Bloodhut Production Thighs and Dolls, the troupe's Annette Hillman presents a male audience member with a sanitary napkin for his comments. Describing her first menstrual period in detail, a member of the troupe fears that "I had pooped myself." There is also the description of an adolescent's understanding of sex: "A guy puts his peter into a woman's cootie," which elicited howls of laughter from the audience.

Understand, subject matter per se is not the problem for this collection of works from past Bloodhut productions. The best parts of Thighs and Dolls are strong, enlightening works that show both talent and insight by their writer/performers. The weakest segments have a self-indulgent tone, that in the context of this company's sympathetic audience, is about as avant garde as preaching smaller government at the Republican National Convention.

Review It's hard to describe the Bloodhut experience for the uninitiated. The all-female troupe, founded in 1991, combines various portions of recitation, dance, performance art, encounter group, improvisation, feminist theatre, stand-up comedy, confrontation and cabaret. The topics range from body image, aging and love to sexuality, discrimination and anger. There are copious moments of blatant agitprop, as well as tender insight into what it means to be human.

Bloodhut has been successful, too. They've toured Arizona and other cities, and have facilitated workshops with hundreds of participants. They are currently seeking participants for a new workshop, The Creative Woman, beginning in September.

Thighs and Dolls is a collection of favorite Bloodhut moments, based on audience surveys last spring. Their core audience is a loyal bunch, familiar with their collective works to the point of being able to delineate the most popular segments over the years. Going to a Bloodhut production is a ceremonial celebration, a gathering of friends. There's a sexual-political camaraderie that goes far beyond a typical evening at the theatre. Men are the minority here, both as subject matter and as audience members, but the jokes about their behavior and genitalia never feel mean-spirited.

Thighs and Dolls opens with a slide-show retrospective of the past six productions. Then Cynthia Meier gives a monologue on the cruelty endured growing up overweight. The audience nods in agreement at tales of harsh comments and absurd situations, like a 9-year-old taking diet pills, and has a vicarious catharsis as Meier achieves enlightenment regarding acceptance of her body as is. While genuinely heartfelt, her performance pulls emotional strings that are there for the plucking, and it feels more like a seminar on self-esteem than theatre.

Next is the comedy skit "Engendered Species," about the sex lives of various animals, including sea horses, chimpanzees and chickens. The high point is a discussion of the whale penis, where members of the troupe march in military fashion across the stage, the huge, pretend organ slung over their shoulders. There are some genuinely hilarious moments regarding anthropomorphized male mating rituals and anatomy.

"Pillow Talk" is an improvisational segment using comments collected from the audience of things said and heard in bed. The troupe does a nice job of stringing non-sequiturs into several funny dialogues. Jamie Lantz does the first of her two performance pieces, "Bleeding Hearts." Later, in "Grandma's Petticoat," she does a highly evocative dance using a white petticoat as a bullfighter's cape, turban, scarf, veil, dancing partner, shroud and finally a ghost. It's an inventive piece that nicely mediates abstract symbols into the whole of a life.

Jan O'Dell's narrative of her life, "On Turning Sixty," is presented in two parts. O'Dell gives a fascinating monologue of the trials and achievements on the journey that brought her to Bloodhut. She enraptures us with her accomplishments and devastates us with the tales of discrimination, failed marriages and breast cancer.

Another improvisation piece, "Roots of Anger," pairs male guest T. Greig Squires with Meier to construct a humorous dialogue of two people fighting, further aided by audience suggestions. "First Dance" is a collage of recollections of fears, embarrassments and successes as the troupe collectively reenact those initial blushing encounters.

After intermission, Kimberly Lowry leads the group in a hilarious sex-and-love advice session from "Franca's Love Clinic," complete with an accent that falls somewhere between Dr. Ruth and Arnold Schwartzenegger. Then Rhonda Hallquist recalls the emotional destruction she caused when her lover found her frank diary in "Paper Be-Trail." Following that narrative of emerging stronger from a break-up, "Living Dolls" lightens the mood with more improv. Laurie Levon makes fun of the effects of gravity and time on a body in "Underhang," about the flapping flesh that develops from aging triceps.

Carrie Hill's "Winging" is the most deeply reaching work here. Told with dance movement and narrative, it describes her rape at age 14 after willingly taking drugs at a party. Her catharsis in revealing this terrible secret is the most effective of the night because it's the most artfully told. Where others have primarily relied on straightforward narrative, Hill uses the metaphor of flying to describe the impact of the event. It makes her story all the more compelling and accessible.

This is followed by Lowry's narrative and catharsis of her anorexic and bulimic behaviors while growing up. The final segment, "A Musical Dessert," is a wild, off-key and funny presentation by the entire troupe as the "It's Never Too Late All-Girl Band," finally making good on those grade-school music lessons. Although the playing itself is marginal, it makes the fine point that the group creates a synergy far beyond the skills of its individuals, as each contributes to the full extent of her ability.

If you're a fan of Bloodhut, Thighs and Dolls is a fun trip down memory lane, as well as a gathering of the tribe. If you're already stuck in evolution as a misogynist, this will confirm your worst primal fears about empowered women. Bloodhut does what it does well, providing a powerful forum for women. From a purely artistic perspective, it has a tendency toward self-indulgence, going for the obvious and easily played emotional chord rather than challenging its audience's assumptions.

But then, what do I know? I'm a guy.

Thighs and Dolls, by Bloodhut Productions, continues through Sunday, May 23, at the PCC Black Box Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 for senior citizens and students. For reservations and information, call 795-0010. TW

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