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Etta Jenks/Little Brown Fucking Machines

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ETTA JENKS

Strawdog Theatre Company

LITTLE BROWN FUCKING MACHINES

A Stage of One's Own

"You have to like to travel. People you call friends become strangers. You can't keep anything, because everything disappears."

So concludes the title character of Marlane Meyer's Etta Jenks, a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles seeking a career as a film actress and ends up a rich and successful businesswoman in the pornographic-movie industry. Along the way she meets a variety of physically and/or psychologically deformed types indigenous to the trade, some clinging to a semblance of civilization and some honest enough to admit that they have none. Spencer and Ben are owners of a skin-flick empire--"Do you remember decolletage?" the former asks nostalgically, to which his partner groans, "Aw, Spencer, you're such a romantic!" Sherman and Burt are twin brothers, one a blind rifle-toting veteran, the other a deaf station porter in love with Etta. Alec and Max are professional assassins, the former a homicidal robot, the latter an effete moralist--"Pornography provides a public service for lonely men who can't stop thinking about their cocks," Max confides to Etta. "I'm Catholic, and I believe it undermines the family . . . I'm not a psycho like Alec. He really likes this work, but I'm just a sociopath."

There's James, the speed-popping pussy-sitter whose charges have an odd way of disappearing. And Sheri, who discovers a way to escape her sordid surroundings, but not until at least one man has paid for her victory with his life. Meanwhile Etta's ethics and her aspirations become more and more circumscribed. "If I can't have my dream, what am I supposed to want?" she asks despairingly. "Money is a good place to start," Spencer suggests. "Dreams are like movies--they function to keep us from seeing how shitty life really is. You'll still be in the movies, Etta."

Etta Jenks is more than merely a walk on the skin side, however, though Meyer writes with the clinical observation of an insider. Mingled with the porno-biz microcosm are several other themes: the obsession with money, of course, a frequent theme in Meyer's plays. Our obsession with bodies--which explains the power exercised by the unscrupulous but handsome Ben and the scorn conferred upon imperfect specimens like Burt and Sherman and a pathetic young man with a withered arm who pays Etta 25 cents a minute to dance for him. Entropy is also touched upon--"An ultimately carnal mind is death-oriented, since the body is always in a progressive state of decay," Sherman muses. One motif suggests that some sort of mutation is taking place--people are described in physiognomic terms ("She has long arms and a big head") and the play is set in what is called, at one point, "primordial ooze." By the time Etta tells Spencer "There's nothing wrong with Max a lobotomy can't cure, but you will have to wait for evolution," we're not sure whether she means it literally or not.

This Strawdog Theatre Company production for the most part disentangles all these interwoven themes, thanks to director Charles Harper's decision to have one story line dominate--Etta's struggle to maintain her fundamental integrity. On the other hand, his decision to have Shannon Branham play Etta as concrete-tough from the very beginning makes her changes seem less a process of gradual corruption than of enhanced opportunity. Other memorable performances come from Arch Harmon (delivering possibly his best to date) as the fatherly Spencer; Steve Savage as the amoral Ben; Matthew Falkowski as the jocular Max; and Mark Hisler in a scary, intense portrayal of the strung-out James.

If Etta Jenks is sometimes nebulous in its message, there is no ambiguity about Little Brown Fucking Machines, writer and director Sharon Sassone's look at the plight of the "hospitality girls" who make their livings in the nightclubs flanking U.S. naval bases. The title is taken from the worldwide epithet for such women--often barely postpubescent--"white enough to be your sister, but dark enough to fuck without troubling your conscience." In this play, unlike last year's West Bank Story, Sassone does not overplay the emotionalism, instead setting up an archetypal situation and letting the facts speak for themselves. Nor does she engage in gratuitous finger pointing or offer facile solutions. "Who is responsible?" a crusading attorney asks while defending one such "hostess," under arrest for infanticide (she was led to kill her baby by a drug- and fatigue-induced religious vision). The girl's subsequent suicide might seem contrived in another play, as might the accidental death of another waif from bootleg paregoric, but in the deliberately simple and paradigmatic universe Sassone has established, these events seem sadly inevitable.

This production at a Stage of One's Own is technically primitive--the storefront space seats only 36 (audience members are advised to arrive early), and the lights are operated without benefit of dimmers--but features some fine performances. Most notable are Gigi New as the attorney and Lee Chen (whom theatergoers may remember from American Blues Theatre's recent Monsters) as the "cherry girl" from the country. Chen's bashful attempt to change into her "working clothes" without removing her peasant's smock is one of the most painfully vulnerable moments to occur onstage in recent memory.

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