Barbie Abuse

Red Hen denizens dare to desecrate the Great American Doll.

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Body Outlaws / Godspell Body Outlaws
Loganberry Books, 12633 Larchmere Boulevard. Presented by Red Hen Productions through August 18
216-661-4301 or 216-795-9800

The Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue
Presented by the Actual Reality Theatre Company through August 25
216-241-5555 or 330-945-9400 (Ticketmaster)

The face that launched a thousand neuroses.
The face that launched a thousand neuroses.
In the enervating August humidity, our legitimate theaters go into hiatus. It's time for Harvey to hibernate and esoterica to flourish. Indeed, a couple of local companies have been harvesting food for thought. Coincidentally, these are two works that savage '70s artifacts: a revered doll and a beloved musical.

The industrious mother hens that keep Red Hen Productions clucking have appropriated Body Outlaws, a collection of essays concerning how women look at their bodies. The book, which was edited and compiled by Ophira Edut, founder of HUES ("Hear Us, Emerging Sisters"), has been roughly but compellingly shaped by director Karen Gygli and the rest of the hens into an absorbing two-part presentation, using separate casts. This impassioned series of readings is sure to please those who found satisfaction in The Vagina Monologues, another testament to female self-actualization. Body Outlaws runs the gamut of self-confession, from model wannabes, seeking self-esteem by wearing size 3's, to self-proclaimed Barbie-phobes, who literally and metaphorically flog this childhood fashion icon, kicking her plastic derriere and hurling it across the great cultural divide.

Somewhere between rap session and theater, the readings are done with the beguiling simplicity of a Mormon town meeting. What they lack in slickness, they more than compensate for in raw talent and down-home earnestness.

A battalion of actresses ranging from neophytes to old pros divvy up the dilemmas: Should a Jewish girl bob her nose or go the Streisand route and keep it "au naturel"? Does a one-footed lesbian of zeppelin proportions give in to expectations and become a "crunchy earth mother," or should she stick to her mantra -- "I'm a fat, sleazy, one-legged, anarchist dyke, and I'm a total hottie"? We learn how a small woman can find brute strength by making words her weapon, and we ponder the profound dilemma of whether to tattoo.

Both evenings begin with the same riotous prologue, "Klaus Barbie and Other Dolls I'd Like to See," in which the cast gathers around a metaphorical pyre and, with the stentorian, sisterly resolve of Wagner's Valkyries, debates how to overcome the horrific threat of Mattel's Barbie: "If you don't look like her, companies will discontinue you. You simply can't compete." Fantasizing how this plastic tormentor of little girls' psyches must evolve or perish, the actresses dream of a future with Rabbi Barbie, B-Girl Barbie, Nympho Barbie, and most ardently of all, Trans-Gender Barbie (formerly known as G.I. Joe).

Rarely have self-mockery and indignation blended as such harmonious bedfellows. The two casts, who perform on alternate evenings, exude determined diversity. We meet Susan Schiff's wheelchair-bound flower-child lesbian and then encounter Sherice Swain's ripe Nubian beauty -- who paradoxically portrays the anorexic angst of a Puerto Rican girl dieting away her youth and vitality. Julie Konrad, who has the patrician elegance of Katharine Hepburn in her Philadelphia Story phase, does a stinging feminist variation on Gulliver's Travels about an unhappily starved teen-mag cover girl who voyages to ultimate self-fulfillment as a plus-size model.

For those who enjoy discovering a rising star, there is Denise Astorino, a cross between the graceful bluster of Jackie Gleason and the lesbian raucousness of Broadway torch singer-comedian Lea Delaria. Astorino is such an arresting presence, audiences can't take their eyes off her. With fire engine-dipped crew cut, 3D girth, and eyes that sparkle mischief and longing, she's a one-woman MGM musical.

For all its good-natured charm, this show is in that messy state somewhere between amateur and professional. But the honesty and visceral highs more than compensate. One of the bonuses is the impassioned audience discussion that follows -- a perfect illustration of how theater can incite and bring people together.

The Actual Reality Theatre Company's presentation of Godspell at the Agora vividly illustrates that point when reinterpretation becomes desecration.

When Baldwin-Wallace theater student John Michael Tebelak and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz transformed The Gospel According to Saint Matthew into a melodious clown show, they perfectly encapsulated the flower-child, touchy-feely idealism of the early '70s. Admittedly, it was an acquired taste. Those who demurred, like New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes, declared it "a nauseating, platitudinous mix of Jesus Christ Superstar and Billy Graham." Those who succumbed to its charm, such as Walter Kerr, relished it as an innocent carnival that suggested "somewhere in the gospels there might be some good news."

With its eclectic score of rock-tinged folk tunes, giddy cakewalks, patter-song parables, and vaudeville fancies, it became the ultimate wash-and-wear musical. It thrived when embraced by Hollywood, church groups, high schools, and PTA mothers.

That is, until the Actual Reality Theatre Company and director Sam Friedman decided that the only way to make it appeal to modern sensibilities was to sour its goodness into nihilism.

Put into the context of a punk rock band sounding off, Schwartz's score is grievously twisted into what sounds like the ravings of a neo-Nazi rally. Trying to purge the show of its cuteness, the director has expunged its musical variety and innocence along with the very concept of God. His other crimes include a self-indulgent prologue and the cutting of the crucial "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." By having Jesus and Judas acting like two sadomasochistic lovers, he has created a truly godless spell.

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