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LAUGH, RED MEDUSA! LAUGH, LAUGH . . . A PERIOD PIECE

Theater Oobleck

at the Broadway Arts Center

Theater Oobleck makes shows from ingredients most troupes won't touch. Based on a script by Ooblecker Rachel X. Weissman, their latest hybrid, Laugh, Red Medusa! Laugh, Laugh . . . A Period Piece, throws together menstruation taboos (note the pun in the title), werewolves, the search for a nonsexist language, pornography, and patriarchy. In its crazy-quilt way, Laugh sheds a manic light on all these topics and stumbles upon more than a few truths along the way.

Laugh is a study in wrenching, often hilarious polarities: it's structured to contrast and finally bring together two intensely opposite sexual worlds. The first is a self-sustaining collective (they call themselves a "space") of four women; although living in different places, they're linked by the letters they send each other, each written in red ink (three are displayed in the lobby). Dahlia, Beth, Jane, and Christine, believers in the power of ancient Demeter, make up a "silent sisterhood" bonded by the color red, the symbol of menstruation. They believe, as Beth says, that "the female perspective is disallowed"--by the sexist bias built into language and by the phallocentric dominion imposed by half the species. But they hope to create "a space out of our words," a new language that will become the basis for a feminist utopia. That could mean taking the "men" out of menstruation; certainly it requires purging the period of its age-old character as a curse. (Not your usual topic for theater.)

Acting as a sort of antimatter to this first world is a second, less realistic one centering on a stage-managing male who carries a big phallic symbol of a pen and launches a wacky set of lecture-demonstrations. He narrates a series of folktales: in each, a Romanian peasant woman is forking hay when she begins to menstruate. The sight of her blood turns her husband into one of the dreaded "tricolici"--a werewolf. The man hastily abandons "culture" and returns to "nature" (the distinction is symbolized by a rope the narrator throws across the stage). Once in "nature" (bare bushes under a full moon), the guy quickly dons a stylized wolf head and comes back to symbolically savage his woman's red smock. When the man shows up once again as himself, he carries a few red threads in his teeth--and his wife realizes that, gasp, hubbie is a tricolici!

Growing ever more frenzied, Laugh alternates between the narrator's increasingly rabid tricolici lectures and the women's increasing disillusionment when their quest is unsuccessful. Dahlia, who decides she'd rather "fuck than be fucked," abandons the cause to make a vaguely pornographic film that fairly revels in penis envy and the Electra complex.

After Dahlia's defection, the other "space women" condemn the myth of Medusa as misogynistic, the product of castration anxiety; as they see it, Medusa represents the female power of creation and procreation. She had to be killed by the "wolf" Perseus because the snakes in her head were so many phallic borrowings which Medusa arrogantly claimed as her own. (Here Laugh turns too clever even for its own considerable intellectual hipness.) Meanwhile, in the other world the Romanian women steal the narrator's all-important phallic pen, inducing an instant nervous breakdown in this pathetic, self-appointed patriarch. ("I am afraid of losing control!" he screams.)

The two worlds start to bleed into each other; as they merge, each discovers its own excesses, and they learn to laugh away their sillier differences. Sisterhood, the women realize, cannot become a rigid orthodoxy, and the male narrator and his Romanian demonstrators realize that patriarchy ultimately diminishes all humanity. Of course this kind of politically correct play refuses to have a climax--Red Medusa never does laugh. Instead the troupe bursts from out of nowhere into a highly choreographed off-the-wall musical summation, with clarinet, horn, and keyboard. It will be seen but not believed.

But not to worry; despite Oobleck's daunting and sometimes incoherent material, the audience does laugh in Laugh. The raunchy Romanian skits are an inspired and literal running joke. (But since we quickly get the point, there are four too many.)

Laugh teems with takeoffs--on Judy Holliday, on laid-back Californians with bleached brains, on Lady Macbeth trying to rub off her menstrual blood, on bondage by-the-numbers, and on the Marquis de Sade's joyless couplings. And the letters the women exchange are as beautifully written as they are acted.

Although Laugh has a certain self-conscious artifice, in the main the results are ragtag, sometimes undercooked. And as usual with Theater Oobleck, no director gets credit--or blame--for that. Rightly so--Laugh is a collective labor of lust; this literally full-blooded show testifies to what must have been a group hallucination. Happily, that group includes the audience. On the night I saw it, a little girl suddenly asked "What are they doing?" and cracked the audience up.

David Isaacson deftly plays the chauvinist-pig narrator who's frantic to keep his misogynist myth from self-destructing; Isaacson's deterioration is hysterical-funny and demented. Barbara Thorne and Sarah Brown are fine farceurs as the not-so-docile Romanian peasant women; Dave Buchen and Danny Thompson are their hulking tricolici.

Members of the not-so-united feminist space are Lisa Black, Jenny Magnus, and the playwright. They womanfully struggle to maintain their solidarity, though their scenes sometimes bog down in sapphic in-jokes. As Dahlia, the temporary traitress, Wylie Goodman manages to backslide with total conviction.

You have to hand it to Theater Oobleck and its unguided missiles. They take touchy topics you'd swear were mutually destructive and turn them into compelling theater. This play gives the war between the sexes a whole new weaponry. And what other group would interrupt its show to announce an upcoming prochoice rally?

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

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