Playing With Dolls

Red Hen undresses Barbie in Body Outlaws' feminist monologues.

Body Outlaws Performed by Red Hen Productions at Spaces gallery, 2220 Superior Viaduct Through March 29, 216-621-2314

Try a Google search for "Barbie," and your first option is the official Mattel Barbie website. Run the cursor over the image of Barbie on the home page, and Barbie enthusiastically proclaims, "I love art!"

But Barbie likely wouldn't love the art of Ophira Edut, whose is the third site listed by Google. It's named after Adios Barbie, the original title of Edut's collection of essays on women's attitudes toward their bodies, before Mattel's legal staff intervened and Edut changed that name to Body Outlaws. Red Hen, "Cleveland's Feminist Theatre," is the first to dramatize these edgy yet tender testaments to women's anxiety over body image, with monologues covering topics ranging from armpit hair to the power of the female booty ("My butt is my advocate").

First offered by Red Hen as a staged reading in the summer of 2001, this fully staged, two-act version was reworked in collaboration with editor Edut. It's now at Spaces gallery, animated by five bright-eyed evangelical actors of a variety of body types and ages. Under the smart, clean direction of Karen Gygli, the monologues retain the thoughtful immediacy of a literary work while adding enough zest and smart-ass buffoonery to make it resonate as stand-up theater.

The centerpiece of the show is "Klaus Barbie and Other Dolls I'd Like to See," beautifully performed by Denise Astorino, with help from the ensemble, who join in for a hilarious runway presentation of potentially more challenging Barbies: Reproductive Rights Barbie, Alternative-Lifestyle Barbie (packaged with both Skipper and Ken), and Multiple Piercings Barbie. (To Mattel's credit, a nose-ringed friend of Barbie was introduced in 1999.) Astorino is equally believable as an unapologetically tarted-up (if not traditionally beautiful) lesbian in "Fishnets Feather Boas and Fat." Just because a girl eats tofu, the sassy zaftig points out, she doesn't have to look like a crunchy earth mama.

In addition to body size and fashion choice, the stories that make up Body Outlaws tackle ethnicity and sexuality. Jazmin Corona offers a subtly powerful turn in a monologue about skin color and sexuality called "My Brown Face," in which a young Indian woman is categorized as "Kama Sutra-exotic" and approached as a presumably submissive target by men of all races. The woman responds by shutting down her authentic sexual identity, crafting an over-the-top ugly American persona in its place.

Body Outlaws' deeper, more poetic material is found in the first act, but the performance closes with a riveting piece about a plus-size model, portrayed by Rose A. Leininger. "Sizing Myself Up: Tales of a Plus-Size Model" effectively cuts through the politics of gender to present a universally moving story of self-acceptance; during these moments, Body Outlaws is at its bravest.

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