Campy '50s exploitation schlock might have inspired Women Behind Bars, but 10 minutes in, camp becomes horror. Fresh-meat inmate Mary Eleanor (Mandy Lagoski, as innocent and terrified as the role demands) is pinned down by her cellmates and subjected to a ramrodding so thoroughly nasty that — if we switched the sexes, swapped the broom handle for a plunger, and adjusted the aim a couple of inches — we could call it the Abner Louima treatment.
Writer Tome Eyen and director Sara Crow have the decency not to play the scene for laughs, but the audience squirms, shields its crotches and tries not to think of splinters or Rudy Giuliani. Watching the scene, I had to admire Minds Eye's courage in exposing the implications behind the camp.
Less disturbing, more likable jolts follow. Done up in grisly drag, with flour-sack breasts and eye-shadow like the smears beneath an outfielder's eyes, Craig Aikman plays Pauline, the matron ruling this '50s cellblock. Pauline is a baritone horror who comes off like Nurse Ratched as imagined by Jacqueline Susann. Fantasizing out loud about sex at a drive-in, Aikman hikes up his skirt, paws at his panties and gushes forth an orgiastic monologue — it goes on far too long, but the good kind of far too long, the kind that, after a while, continues past the audience's patience but becomes exponentially funnier for its sheer, endless chutzpah.
The moment saves the show. Ace performances from Lagoski and the inventive Sean Hogge also help; they attack their roles with intelligence and abandon, milking their cornfed innocence for all it's worth. There are a couple of other standout set pieces, most notably a sex scene (scored to Christmas carols) in which Hogge conjugates Lagoski like she's the filthiest verb in the language.
When it's not going too far, though, Women Behind Bars is sort of a slog. The ensemble is spirited but lacks timing; the actors are always busy, making it difficult to know where to look. Worse, one moment they're shrieking and we flinch; the next, they're too quiet and we have to lean in. And iffy technical planning muddles a lengthy shower sequence: We're supposed to see the women in silhouette, through a shower curtain, as they soap themselves up, then pick fights and, bizarrely, pull knives from their vaginas. But the lighting is off, the shadows indistinct, and the relentless chatter tough to make out.
Ultimately, the show's daringness withers because of race. The inmates snipe at one another in West Side Story accents, muttering dark one-liners such as "I never met a bull-dyke yet with a sense of humor" and lobbing "dago"s, "spic"s and "guinea"s, the safest of the slurs. This ironic racism is a hallmark of camp extravaganzas. We're supposed to laugh not because we're full of hate but because we're not, because we're sophisticated in ways that these idiot characters will never be.
This reminds me of the gay- and Jew-baiting in Spamalot! or The Producers, two shows that pass off focus-grouped shenanigans for balls-out wildness. There, the stereotypes — the mincing and the nebbishy, the cock-hungry and the money-crazed — are blown up to absurdity. We're meant to excuse them on the grounds that we don't believe them, that the joke is not on the characters but on the rubes out in the hinterlands who might believe that this is what gays and Jews are actually like.
Because Women Behind Bars comes from the '70s and is set in the '50s, the race-baiting isn't prettied up with abstractions. It's raw and ugly, certainly what Minds Eye is after. But now that the show is in the hinterlands, out here in Minuteman country, I don't know what to make of a line like "I wouldn't want to live much longer now that the spics have moved in."
Petra Allen says it well and gets a big laugh, but it got to me even more than that rape scene. Laughing at racist bullshit from an ironic perspective is cheap enough; glancing around at that smiling crowd, I couldn't help but worry that some of them weren't aware of any irony at all.