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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Theater Rhinoceros is Presenting Women Behind Bars

Also see Richard's review of Passion

Theatre Rhinoceros opened last week with Tom Eyen's classic camp women's prison drama, Women Behind Bars. This farce has been around since 1976, when it played Off Broadway with Pat Ast in the role of the evil prison matron Pauline. The role was later taken over by Divine. This travesty has a sequel called Neon Woman, penned by both Eyen and Divine, that played in San Francisco in the late '70s with Divine in the title role. Playwright Tom Eyen received a Tony for his book of the musical Dreamgirls. He also wrote a string of early musicals for then unknown Bette Midler and scripts for the television series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

The playwright based the dialogue and plotlines of Women Behind Bars on the exploitation films produced by Universal, Warner's and Republic in the 1950s. I worked on a couple of those films at Republic and Warner's and we thought them pure camp even then, through the studios considered them serious films showing the evils of the prison system. Russell Blackwood, director of this production, puts it simply: "Women Behind Bars takes your worst women's prison nightmare to the nth degree and makes it so horrible that it's ridiculous."

The comedy is set in The Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, and the 10 woman cast includes a range of social and psychological "types." The prisoners include the innocent Heidi type who is eventually destroyed by the system and the street-wise tough girl who smokes a lot and has Camel cigarettes over her left breast and Lucky Strikes over her right. There is a Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DeBois type, a delicate butterfly belle. It seems she is still waiting for the streetcar and she uses lines from the Tennessee Williams play. All races are displayed here along with the evil queen of the jail, the matron, and her sidekick, whom everyone hates. In fact, the sidekick hates herself.

Poor Mary-Eleanor, a "young innocent," enters this den of multicultural iniquity on a false charge of robbery. Evil matron gets her grimy hands on the poor child and the Heidi character becomes "Claire Trevor, hard as nails," by the play's end. In the films there were only subtle hints of lesbianism, but in this production it's right up front.

The whole cast was very good on opening night, though there were times when they were off on their timing. Some overact and become too frantic to make it enjoyable. Some of the performances need to be toned down. There is a musical background similar to those heard in the old prison films. Sometimes, at the beginning of the show, the music drowns out the dialogue.

There are some very good performances showcased, however, making for a fun evening. Mary Knoll is the perfect evil matron all dressed in black with boots to match. She looks like a thin Joan Crawford without her hangers, and she uses the wildest facial expressions when speaking her lines. Treacy Corrigan, as the matron's sidekick, could tone down her character a bit. It seems she is trying to upstage Ms. Knoll, and the balance between them is very uneven. However, these are all easy fixes, I'm sure.

Stephanie S. Cunha is great as the fugitive from San Juan, her accent straight out of West Side Story. When she started to name all the members of her family in that accent, I nearly broke up. Dorothy Adams makes a perfect Blanche, speaking in the cultured accent of a displaced southern aristocrat, a woman who must now depend on the kindness of strangers. One of the best professionals in the cast is long-time actress Kathryn Trask who plays Granny, the religious old lady prisoner with a chip on her tongue. Ms. Trask has been acting since 1952, in almost every city in this country and London, Paris and Edinburgh. She has a distinguished stage presence and voice.

There is one lone male in this production, Michael Carreiro, who plays the guard, the psychologist and Mary Eleanor's boyfriend. He is very good in all of these roles. On the whole, this is one of the Rhino's better productions and for for a fun evening with no pretenses, I recommend this production.

Women Behind Bars runs through April 13 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and Van Ness). Tickets are $16 to $22. The Rhino, in conjunction with Hot Pants Homo Players is also presenting Lavender Lockeroom in the Studio. Tickets are $15 to $18. It runs through March 31 and you can call (415)861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org for tickets to either show.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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