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I Am Woman 

Four plays redefine the word diva, for good and bad

Wednesday, May 3 2006
Once upon a time, becoming a diva depended upon more than making it to the semifinals of Pop Idol or appearing on the cover of Hello! The original diva — as derived from the Latin term for goddess and meaning "a female opera star of rare talent" — had to possess both looks that could kill and a voice capable of bringing the dead back to life. Today, as celebrities like Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera have proved, ravishing beauty and a dazzling vocal range aren't prerequisites for entry into the ranks of superstardom. A Time magazine article from October 2002 defined the modern diva as "a rampaging female ego redeemed only in part by a lovely voice." I'd go even further by saying that achieving prima donna status requires little more than a great pair of tits, a tan, and a reasonably hard-working PR agent.

Given the above, Exit Theatre's fifth annual DIVAfest seems like a bit of a misnomer. Tits loom large in Lunatique Fantastique's Beauty and the Breast, egos clash in Sarah McKereghan's Guns and Ammunition, and Sean Owens' legs — encased in stockings and high heels in the DIVAfest Cabaret — are nothing if not killing, but there's otherwise little about this festival dedicated to new works by women writers that reflects either the traditional or contemporary concept of the term.

Unless your idea of a diva is an octo- genarian Wal-Mart employee with heat rash, Karen Ripley and Annie Larson's Waiting for FEMA ranks low on the prima donna charts. Inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this scruffy comedy provides a snapshot of two grumpy old ladies as they flail about on the roof of a building under the blazing New Orleans sun, attempting to construct a makeshift raft while trying to attract — without success — the attention of Federal Emergency Management Agency helicopters as they fly by. Ripley and Larson, female counterparts to Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon's Grumpy Old Men, give energetic, slapstick performances as hurricane survivors Molly and Edna, respectively. Lyrical blues numbers accompanied by Jack "Applejack" Walroth on guitar reflect the women's growing frustration at having been forgotten by the feds. The show's baggy, ad-libbed structure might make Larson and Ripley's already half-assed Beckett spoof feel even more rambling and directionless, yet the duo's clownlike antics still endears. And although the empire of the diva might be a long way from the condemned rooftop upon which New Orleans' answer to Vladimir and Estragon bide their time, Exit Theatre Artistic Director Christina Augello's cameo turn as a giant crawfish, a vision in long, glittery eyelashes and gold lame, does imbue Waiting for FEMA with a much-needed touch of camp glamour.

McKereghan's domestic drama about female family members coping with a medical emergency, Guns and Ammunition, appears to have little in common with Larson and Ripley's double act. Set in a hospital waiting room some hours after an armed robbery in which an innocent male bystander is shot, the play charts the interactions between the wounded man's wife, sister, mother, and daughter as they try to come to terms with the crisis and each other. Yet for all their differences, Waiting for FEMA and Guns and Ammunition seem to present the same fundamental (and banal) view of womanhood: that when thrust together in adverse circumstances, women do one thing very well — they fight. Whether arguing about cellphone usage or what to buy from the hospital snack machine, the four characters in McKereghan's play go at each other like combatants in a formulaic catfight. Of course, a play without conflict isn't much of a play. But despite forthright performances from all the cast members and some comedic moments, Guns and Ammunition's arsenal is largely built on feminine stereotypes, from the uptight career woman to the reactionary mother-in-law.

Hosted by Sean Owens and featuring songs composed by Owens and musician Don Seaver, DIVAfest Cabaret comes closest to exemplifying the traditional notion of the diva. For one thing, the entire production revolves around its host. Not only is Owens the most exotic being in the festival —rivaling Augello's sequined crawfish for sparkles — but in true drag queen style he also cunningly passes off a fashion show starring himself in a variety of natty ensembles as a piece of theater about the evolving spirit of San Francisco over the decades since the 1906 earthquake. For another, the talents of the female actors are deliberately undermined. Sassy singing from Beth Wilmurt is offset by watching her perform the catchy torch song of an opening number, "Here I Stand," splattered with spaghetti; meanwhile, Denmo Ibrahim's impersonation of modern ballet icon Isadora Duncan is simply mad.

Upon closer analysis, DIVAfest seems to be pushing for an alternative definition of diva. If there's any production that embodies this spirit, it's Lunatique Fantastique's eloquent Beauty and the Breast. Inspired by the story of LunFan founder Liebe Wetzel's friend "Z," who was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2003, the object-puppet production not only conceives of an ordinary woman facing a terrifying illness with determination and humanity, but also conjures up this vision with neither didacticism nor schmaltz. Beauty and the Breast steers clear of drab "issues theater" territory via a spirit of deep play, witty creativity, and an unorthodox approach to casting. The performers include a selection of brightly patterned bras, assorted garden tools, and a chemo wig. Six dexterous female puppeteers — dressed in creamy-white dungarees (a clever contrast to the company's usual all-black outfits), with straw hats shading their eyes so that the audience's attention remains focused on the puppets — bring the characters to life. In their capable hands, a scrunched white vest becomes a shiatsu massage therapist, a leopard-print underwire bra and a curly wig are transformed into a girl about town and her yapping terrier, and a watering can atop a flowerpot and a couple of trowels personify a portly physician. The effect is simultaneously hilarious and devastating. It's not quite the Queen of the Night's appearance in Mozart's Magic Flute or the death scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, but Beauty and the Breast is moving in a different way.

Augello kicked off the festival by defining a diva as "a sophisticated, creative woman who knows what she wants." The productions in this year's DIVAfest might vary in their creativity and sophistication, and the characters and artists might not always know what they want, but they all remind us that there's more to being a diva than the likes of Maria Callas and Madonna will allow.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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