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An able cast pulls off a musical comedy set in a 1950s lesbian club
She had gams that went all the way up to her waist, a rack that could only be contained by her brassiere and an attitude that came through the door about five minutes before she did.
She was a dame right out of a pulp novel, and she and her friends didn’t take guff from anyone.
All right, that’s all a lot of nonsense, but it sets the mood for Cleveland Public Theater’s production of Patricia Kane’s play Pulp, which debuted at the About Face Theatre Festival of New Plays in Chicago in 2003.
Billed as a “noir musical comedy takeoff of the lesbian pulp fiction of the 1930s through ’50s,” it’s a spirited romp through the Well, a Chicago lesbian bar sometime in the 1950s.
Terry Logan (Maggie Arndt) is on the lam, having left Alabama after an indiscretion with the daughter of the general in charge of the local army base. Terry, a Women’s Army Corps volunteer, figures it might be a good idea to get out of Dodge before the general’s daughter gives him a full report on maneuvers that took place down south, if you will.
She hops a train to Chicago, and on the last stretch from Joliet to the Windy City, meets Pepper (Kimberly Lauren Koljat), an effervescent young gal who offers to show her the town.
Pepper works at the Well, and is running the joint in the absence of Viviane Blaine (Alison Garrigan), the high-class, big-bucked, big-bosomed owner. She made her money the old-fashioned way, inheriting it from her father, a bootlegger and munitions manufacturer in The War.
Both Terry and Vivian were involved in The War, always spoken in capital letters and directly to the audience, much like whenever Terry says, “I’m a lesbian, plain and simple. I don’t make any bones about it.” And she says it repeatedly, hilariously.
Terry has nowhere to stay, so Pepper offers her the upstairs room, then introduces her to the remaining characters of the quintet, the bawdy seductress Eva “Bing” Malone (Sheffia Randall Dooley) and the young and confused sharpshooter Winny (Elizabeth R. Wood).
It turns out that the bar holds monthly cabaret nights, when the employees dress in drag and perform, hence the “musical” aspect of “noir musical comedy.” Unlike a more traditional musical, however, characters do not simply break into song. They are on stage at the bar, performing, accompanied by pianist Butch Marshall, who is the music director for the play.
Viviane, meanwhile, has been in Paris, which she apparently visits frequently. She makes occasional use of the third-floor apartment above the bar, and so, clad in a satin gown reminiscent of a kimono, she meets Terry down in the bar one morning, setting off a chain of events that will either destroy every character in the cast, or make them finally whole.
Directed by veteran stage man Scott Plate, who graced CPT’s James Levin Theater stage in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Pulp is a clever twist on the tropes of the genre, while actually referring to the genre.
Pepper reads lesbian pulp novels, lending one to Bing, who claims to have her own ample collection. Viviane refers to them as well, wishing that Pepper wouldn’t read them. She believes that having the Well should be enough of an escape from the cold, cruel world outside.
In Plate’s hands, the play is given the proper flair, at once a 1950s melodrama and a paean to them. There is a certain amount of tongue planted in cheek, a certain amount of camp, but it never gets out of hand.
A lesser director might have either gone too far with the camp, or had the cast play it with stone-faced seriousness, and either road would have spelled disaster. Not so with Plate, however. The same man who directed a stageful of naked men in Dobama Theater’s production of Take Me Out earlier this year without making it a gratuitous display of wieners and buns also takes a barful of lesbians and creates a loving look at a darker time.
His cast selection is inspired, as well.
Garrigan as Viviane was so high-femme, one almost suspected the big reveal at the end of the play would be that she was a drag queen. No woman can be that womanly, and Garrigan’s diction and poise are a wonder to behold. When one considers that she also did the costuming for the show, it gives a glimpse into the depths of her talents.
Arndt as Terry is an iconic butch, slacks and crisp white shirt evoking Katharine Hepburn or k.d. lang. It’s difficult to suppress at least a giggle every time she, in the middle of a conversation, turns her head to the audience and unleashes that trademark “I’m a lesbian, plain and simple. I don’t make any bones about it.” It’s hard not to laugh, thinking about it now.
Pepper’s natural cheer is a wonder to behold in Koljat’s hands, and one questions whether Plate had to spike her drinks with something to make her that happy. While seemingly a naďf, she also proves herself far more knowing than one would guess, and it is handled deftly by Koljat.
Wood is more than capable as Winny, which one would expect from half of the comedy duo the Spleeny Sisters. Another naďf, she seems to stumble as a girl, but when she drags up for her performances, the character is completely self-assured. Wood handles this dichotomy beautifully.
Dooley’s Bing at times steals the show, however. While the character is played a little broadly, and is most likely meant to be, Dooley’s musical number makes one wish she had about ten more songs to sing during the course of the play. One tune was not enough to satisfy the desire to hear her belt it out to the rafters, and whether the roof of such an old building could handle her lung capacity should be a prime concern.
In other words, the woman can sing. Kind of like Nina Simone, if Nina Simone had a smoother voice.
Pulp is being staged in the upstairs James Levin Theater on Cleveland Public Theater’s campus, and has both regular and cabaret seating. The cabaret tables come with table service, and since the play takes place in a bar, those tables become part of the action, with Terry and Bing bringing out “drinks.” There is also corkage available.
So, for $20 above the $10-$15 ticket price, patrons can enjoy reserved seating and table service, as well as bringing their own bottle of wine to the show. It’s not bad, and can add a great deal to the show. Cabaret seating must, however, be reserved in advance through the website or over the phone.
Regardless of where theatergoers sit, however, Pulp will give them what they want--music, comedy, sex and romance.
Pulp is playing through December 22 at Cleveland Public Theater’s James Levin Theater, 6415 Detroit Ave. Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursday through Saturday, 3 pm on Sunday. For tickets or more information, call 216-6312727 ext. 501 or go to www.cptonline.org.