Stage: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Breaking Up

The unfulfilled promise of narrative flow sends Bad Girls in the Big City into the gutter.


Because the title of Hip Pocket Theatre’s current production is Bad Girls in the Big City, you won’t be surprised to learn that tickets are selling as fast as those Girls Gone Wild videos. But aside from the chasm between television and live theater as media experiences, there are considerable differences in content and tone between these two. Girls Gone Wild offers (supposedly) spontaneous, booze-fueled flashes by curvaceous college females; Hip Pocket’s Bad Girls features studiously choreographed, extravagantly costumed women of all ages and shapes (a refreshing change from the chalk sticks that purport to represent the female form). They and their onstage male partners offer a long series of vignettes from authentic dimestore paperback erotica with titles like Marijuana Girl and Naughty Puss. Let me qualify — Saturday night’s repetitious and self-conscious performance was extremely long. It sometimes felt like a trial by endurance of one note struck endlessly on an overcrowded stage.

Director-adapter Johnny Simons has gone terribly wrong with an inspired premise and an enthusiastic cast of nearly 50. He’s helped create a series of poses rather than performances, and, as a result, no one actor emerges memorably from the flattened tableaux. The performers become a nameless crowd whose contributions are approximately as long as the average acting audition — you can’t help but feel that Simons also cast the players somewhat cynically, with “type” paramount over “talent.” The damaged beauty of the text is spread thin and compromised for the general audience. (Much as Hip Pocket soft-pedals the adult nature of this show in publicity announcements, there were numerous moments when the production looked determined to break out and rudely shake its bottom at the risk of our reproach.)

It’s not as though some of us don’t enjoy throbbing purple prose. Contemporary purveyors of smut can toss off crude slang like “tits” and “dick” with nary a fear of reprisal. The male — and sometimes female — authors of decades-old pulp paperbacks had to rely on more circuitous language to get ideas across. Breasts were “pale, heaving globes of glory,” while the penis was an “engorged male missile aiming at its target.” There is a pseudo-classical quality to the florid language of Bad Girls in the Big City that helps you appreciate an era when shame forced people to be more inventive in describing carnal passion. Simons’ miscalculation is in overdosing ticketbuyers with that language, forsaking any kind of plot or compelling structure to keep those words fresh as the show progresses.

Our hosts for the evening are two nattily dressed older gentlemen, Sean Paul Powers (Pieter Van Der Vleit) and Charles Foster Lovewell (Dick Harris), who both represent the “Yearmark Collection of Fine Literature.” The formula starts out simple, then quickly becomes simplistic: the two announce tawdry book names with professorial gravity, then three or more actors step into the spotlight to act out excerpts from said books; Brandon Brown’s musical quartet, including standup bass and squealing, grunting trumpet, sets the mood. You soon start to become restless for some kind of narrative variation. The production lurches through more than 90 minutes of virtually indistinguishable scenario, punctuated by some ill-advised, lip-synched mime to recordings by Danny Kaye and Gene Austin. The connection between these interludes is never really established, save to generate a vague vaudevillian mood that the listless stage action can’t support.

The strangest artistic decision in the creation of Bad Girls involves the spoken-word recitation of one bawdy book title after another by what seems like each of the 50 cast members. They step up to the edge of the stage, stretch and contort their faces to exaggerated effect, and simply utter names like The Unnatural Wife or Passion Class or The Bigamist. It drags down the play’s pace to no small degree. What’s inadvertently highlighted is the tedium, rather than the imaginative titillation, of the sex fiction genre.

Simons is a nationally recognized authority on the classical Italian commedia dell’arte form, a comic performance style that relies heavily on sexual innuendo. He’s never been snobbish when it comes to appealing to that part of his audience that appreciates a good dirty joke. Simons can locate the pulse point where the highbrow and lowbrow intersect; his original adaptations of Shakespeare, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Crumb proved as much in past Hip Pocket seasons. But Bad Girls in the Big City ends up being one of his laziest stage interpretations yet — he is as complacent with his own tedious, campy-cutesy style of modern burlesque as professional pornographers are with verité nastiness. In comparison, the latter get points for at least achieving their goal — to provide fast, easy gratification for viewers. The inhabitants of Hip Pocket’s Big City may be bad, but the production itself is neither fast nor easy.

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