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Girls Gone Wild

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Pulp

About Face Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

For some people, postwar lesbian pulp fiction is all about the covers--often reproduced in the form of posters, magnets, and greeting cards. And for good reason: the colors are lurid, the poses dramatic--they almost tell a story in themselves. On the cover of Sheldon Lord's 1962 novel The Third Way a woman huddles naked except for a towel on the edge of a bed while another woman in a slip lurks in the background, looking on knowingly. The 1966 Lesbian Jungle, by Vicki Evans, shows a blond in a bustier gazing seductively at a short-haired woman in a suit while a third woman at the bar looks on amused. There was rarely as much sex as the covers suggested--in fact the books are fairly tame by today's standards. But they still flew off the shelves, bought by men and women alike.

For lesbians of the 1950s and '60s, girl-on-girl pulp fiction was more than a breathless midnight read. It gave them information about urban lesbian communities and provided a sense of connection with other lesbians.

The first lesbian pulps weren't designed to do these things, of course. According to Jaye Zimet in Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969, they were written by men for men as "one-handed reading." But eventually lesbian writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Marijane Meaker (best known as beloved young-adult author M.E. Kerr) started writing them, usually under pseudonyms. They told stories about hidden lesbian bars, shopgirls bantering suggestively, secret lives in army barracks and college dormitories. There were stock characters: the alcoholic, the ingenue, the woman living an ordinary heterosexual life who's seduced by a femme fatale. But the novels written by lesbians had a ring of truth: the characters tended to be multidimensional, to reflect actual lesbian communities, and to lead lives considerably less salacious than the book covers implied.

Even so, things always turned out badly for the lesbian characters. Thanks to pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which threatened to censor these books as pornographic, editors told writers that they needed to provide "moral" endings. That meant that by the end of the story the lesbians wound up dead, alcoholic, in mental institutions, or contentedly paired off with men.

Patricia Kane's jaunty take on lesbian pulp fiction, being presented in its world premiere by About Face Theatre, wraps up all this history in one smirking, entertaining package that's part revisionist homage and part campy romp. Pulp is based more on the idea of the original books than on any one story. It's 1956, and Terry Logan (Julia Neary) has recently been discharged from the Women's Army Corps, where she flew planes and seduced women. Arriving in Chicago, she immediately finds her way to the Well, a bar where "women of a certain ilk" congregate. Terry is bluntly confident about her sexuality. She regularly announces with a satisfied air, "I am a lesbian, plain and simple--I make no bones about it."

The regulars are immediately drawn to her, though their reactions vary. Saucy alcoholic Bing (Lesley Bevan) tries to lure her into bed; mysterious, elegant, supposedly straight Vivian (Amy Warren) blows hot and cold; and awkward bartender Pepper (Hanna Dworkin) and professional sharpshooter Winny (Jane Blass) befriend her quickly.

Kane touches on issues of the day--and of today, for that matter. Winny (short for "Winchester rifle") can't enter a major shooting competition because she's female. She's also so reluctant to acknowledge her homosexuality that she convinces herself she's in love with a man. The wealthy Vivian, who turned her father's munitions factory into a major lipstick manufacturer, is concerned about ruining her reputation in the business world. And Bing has been rejected by her family and feels trapped by her subsequent emotional and financial dependence on Vivian.

Still, Pulp doesn't take itself all that seriously. Jessica Thebus directs with a wink--and it works. Little is titillating but much is funny. The script's comic patter, reminiscent of movies from the 40s, is laced with innuendo. "I wasn't in the gutter, but I sure had a ringside seat at the curb," one character says. "She's a girl who's been around the block--and given tours," says another. The script slows in the middle when Kane starts to supply the characters' backstories. But for the most part it skips along; set entirely in the bar, it's spiced by cabaret acts performed by the characters in drag (with lyrics by Kane and slinky music by Andre Pluess). At emotional high points, the women adopt poses inspired by pulp fiction covers, and Darin Keesing's lights brighten as if the characters were having their picture taken. Then there's a pause to let the melodrama sink in.

In keeping with the comic tone, all the women's stories end happily--this is a revisionist work, after all. The girl gets the girl. The heroine saves the day. Those who were lost are found. The colorful women on the book covers live again in all their glory--and the theater world gains a work of lesbian camp that should appeal to gays and straights alike.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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