Women In Cages, Caged, Caged Fury, Caged Heat, Chained Heat, Slammer Girls, and the unforgettable Ilsa – The Wicked Warden are just seven of the Women-In-Jail movies spoofed in Tom Eyen’s hilariously campy Women Behind Bars, now going into its homestretch at West Hollywood’s Celebration Theater.  Prepare yourself for one prison hell of a good time.

Entering the Celebration, expect to be greeted by a mood-setting montage of girlsploitation flicks (and the trailer for 1950’s A Streetcar Named Desire), followed by pre-show “orders” barked out by butch prison guard Louise (Kimberly Lewis) and the show’s 1950s-style black-&-white opening credits. Our cast of characters then make their introductions.  They include:

•Faded Southern belle Blanche (Dudley Beene), still waiting for that streetcar while doing time for sodomy and shoplifting
•Tough Harlem girl Jo-Jo (Pip Lilly), convicted of assault with a deadly weapon (i.e., her battery radio)
•Boop-boop-a-doop-voiced Cheri Netherland (Mary K. Devault), sent up the river for soliciting, extortion, and “peddling without a bicycle”
•Elderly Bible-thumping nine-time widow Granny (Randi Pareira), jailed for nine counts of manslaughter
•Diesel-dyke Gloria (Tara Karsian), incarcerated for Murder One and tax evasion
•Nutcase/speed freak Ada (DawnMarie Ferrara), in the slammer for arson
•San Juan’s favorite jailbird Maria Guadalupe Marguerita Theresa Santanos, aka Guadalupe (Arianna Oritiz), locked up for prostitution, possession of drugs, and failing to pay off Con Edison

Presiding over this den of caged she-wolves is the sadistic, big-busted, big-haired, gal-loving, decidedly scary prison Matron (understudy Tracey Collins at the performance reviewed).

Arriving one day amongst this hard-bitten harem and certain to upset the (rotten) apple cart is sweet, innocent girl-next-door Mary-Eleanor (Jessica Goldapple), about to lose that sweetness and innocence for good (or “for bad” as the case may be). All too soon Mary-Eleanor realizes this is not going to be at all like summer camp, and she is promptly stripped down to her undies by her fellow convicts and violated with a broom handle by none other than Matron herself. (Gloria to Mary-Eleanor: Only standard initiation for new inmates.  It could have been more fun if you went with it.)

As Mary-Eleanor’s stay in the big house progresses, women behind bars are pushed, slapped, and thrown to the floor, insults are traded, and wisecracks are greeted by threats of a “one way ticket to Section Ten.” (Cheri:  Gee, poor Guadalupe. Few people have ever come back from Section Ten the same.) Anybody who knows his or her Women-In-Prison-Movies will be able to predict what will happen to Mary-Eleanor’s innocence.  (Spoiler: It won’t last for long.) 

Eyen’s dialog is simply delish, especially for anyone with a gay sensibility and a knowledge of Women In Film:
Blanche: I’m innocent, ya hear, innocent. I don’t belong here. It was a frame up I tell you. A frame up!
Jo-Jo: Sure it was Dixie Peach. Next thing you’ll be telling us your family owned Belle Rive.
Blanche: How did you know?

Director Kurt Koehler knows his prison movies and he knows his camp, and putting the two together, his vision comes to life in glorious black-and-white (courtesy of set designer Kurt Boetcher, lighting designer Matthew Denman, and costume designer Michael Mullen).  Koehler gets his actresses to go just enough over the top, and punctuates the action with slaps galore (when the slapper’s hand goes out, actors everywhere else on stage provide live sound effects) in addition to pushes and shoves that send inmates a-flyin’ thanks to some great cartoon-like fight choreography.

Performances are all around terrific.  Lewis is a hoot barking out orders and serving as Matron’s minion, Beene proves himself ready for his Streetcar close-up, Lilly is one tough fudge cookie (no offense intended), Devault is great as the sweet-but-hard-bitten Cheri, Pareira channels her inner geezer into Granny, Karsian makes Gloria one hair-ratted tough gal you don’t want to tangle with, and Ferrara crosses eyes with the best of them as nutjob Ada.  Goldapple gets special billing in the opening titles (“Intoducing Jessica Goldapple”) and high marks for her transition from guileless newbie to hardened criminal. Best of all among the inmates is Ortiz, the Latin spitfire who’s so darned cute and funny that you just want to take her home with you.  Ted Monte gets to play all the male characters, and does nicely in his many roles (including Paul, Doctor, and Man), whether in costume or (almost) in his birthday suit. 

Finally, doing a bang-up job in the second of her two scheduled appearances is Collins, who gives Matron a third dimension (and those cultivated speech patterns which were de rigueur in Hollywood’s Golden Age).

Boetcher’s shades-of-gray set is just what the prison doc ordered and given appropriately stark film noir lighting by Denman. (Watch how those footlights cast shadows on the jail cell walls.)  Veronica Lancaster’s sound design features the repeated clanging prison doors, a delectable selection of melodramatic ‘50s movie soundtrack music, and bouncy background tunes including Teresa Brewer’s “Music Music Music” and Carmen Miranda’s infectious “Cuando Le Gusta” (aka Guadalupe’s Theme).  Most noteworthy among the design elements are Mullen’s fabulous costumes, from the Matron’s made-to-order scare-wear to the Technicolor 1950s frock Mary-Eleanor sports upon arrival to the distaff felons’ prison uniforms, each especially designed to match its owner’s character. (Blanche wears a lace shawl, Jo-Jo sports a polka-dot head scarf, Cheri’s uniform is a fur trimmed mini, Guadalupe has a black taffeta petticoat under hers, etc.)

Following the true-to-life stories of F***ing Men, returning to the Celebration next month for a seven-week return engagement, Women Behind Bars provides LGBT theater fans with a campy yet hard-edged change of pace.  This Women’s Detention Center is a great place to visit (but you wouldn’t want to live there). 

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd.,Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 13, 2009

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