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THEATER REVIEW Desperate Dolls

by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: Darren Callahan. At: Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-528-9696; Article Link Here ; $15. Runs through: Dec. 23

From the earliest tales of foolish maidens who ventured out to the Fair/the Ball/the Big City/Hollywood and later, to the Prom/Rock Concert, only to be seduced by Satan's homeys, entertainment engineered to titillate has trumpeted its value as a morality fable. Consumers of soft-core porn, you see, don't want to see a bad girl doing naughty things—they want to see a good girl doing naughty things. Darren Callahan's adherence to this principle makes for a well-crafted museum piece, but it also alerts us to a hazard of the genre: For the viewers of cut-rate exploitation flicks, the perverse behavior replicated on the screen is its own justification, but authors, too, risk becoming so enamored of their own masturbatory fantasy that they fall prey to their own illusion, and in doing so, lose sight of their initial purpose.

Strawdog Theatre's predominantly male creative staff may have begun their project the loftiest of artistic motives, but the results of their labor emerge a museum piece not far removed from the "dirty pictures" that Callahan's Tinsel-Town hero claims not to make any more.

The narrative is presented scene by scene in non-chronological order—a Euro-surrealist affectation temporarily distracting us from the familiar B-movie tropes: Three nubile young West Coast newcomers—blonde, brunette and redhead—agree to appear in Jack Fennigan's sex-and-sunshine movies, seeing in them a stepping stone to more serious recognition. Little do they suspect that the director is under contract to, literally, the producer from hell. Soon, wholesome tits-and-ass romps give way to grisly slasher-fests, a masked stranger with supernatural powers murders the terrified damsels one by one, and their ghosts return to wreak revenge on the man who steered them wrong.

When the goal is an homage to American International, Hammer and other low-budget film studios of the 1960s and '70s, there's no need to apologize for Mad Men-era motel-room decor, or Hitchcock-knockoff juxtaposition of the Ronettes chirping "He Came, He Saw, He Conquered" with the shrieks and struggles of conveniently underdressed damsels—or, for that matter, the whole guilty-pleasure aesthetic remaining as popular today as when Petronius or Thomas Middleton pandered to audiences asking only for squirms disguised as shudders. No one can deny the high quality of period accuracy reflected in the Strawdog ensemble's athletic performances and scenic/wardrobe design, but the playbill note speculating on why this style of drama is so rarely done in live theater overlooks the vast library of original material available on Netflix allowing for more, um, private viewing.

[Note: Due to the subject matter and graphic nature of this production, no one under the age of 18 will be admitted.]

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