Nightingale Theatre's 'Women Behind Bars' lets the troupe revisit prison
By JAMES D. WATTS JR., 08/22/2010
For someone who claims never to have had so much as a speeding ticket, Liz Masters has spent a great deal of time this year in prison.
But doing time in lockups from modern-day Florida to ancient Greece is exactly what Masters has wanted to do.
"It is a little odd, but the last four shows I've done, I've played women in prison," said the Tulsa actress, who appeared in Heller Theatre's "The Exonerated," a play about people on death row; did monologue about a woman in jail for Theatre Pops' "Tinkerbell is Dead" show; and was part of the ensemble in Odeum Theatre's production of "The Trojan Women."
Now Masters is part of the Nightingale Theatre's "Women Behind Bars," and while the setting of this Tom Eyen play might be similar to the other shows in which she's appeared, this new play is about as far from those emotionally charged dramas as could be imagined.
"Women Behind Bars" was written in 1974, and it is a blackly comic, very adult spoof of the 1950s-era B-movies about ... well, about women in prison. Eyen, best known as one of the book writers for the musical "Dreamgirls," had originally made his name as a playwright with plays that are deliberately provocative and satiric, such as "The Dirtiest Show in Town."
John Cruncleton, director of the show, said he was originally put off by the play.
"I've always been wary of plays that reference film," he said, "and usually I'm not attracted to spoofs. And this play was very much both those things. I read it, and thought it was funny, but thought I could dismiss it.
"But I kept thinking about it for days after that," he said. "While it sends up those old films, and uses just about every cliche that the words 'women behind bars' brings to mind, at its core it's as serious a play as, say, 'The Trojan Women.'"
That comparison is something several of the cast members commented on - in part because, like Masters, they were also part of the ensemble of "The Trojan Women."
"In fact," said Sara Cruncleton, "Sara (Wilemon) and I really started talking about this play backstage while we were in 'The Trojan Women.'"
Wilemon had performed in a production of "Women Behind Bars" several years ago, when she was living in St. Petersburg, Fla. She suggested the play to the Cruncletons, whose Midwestern Theater Company has never shied away from controversial and unconventional work.
"It's one of those plays that is a true ensemble piece, and it requires everyone to be on stage almost the entire time," Wilemon said. "So even if you don't have a line in a scene, you still have to project that character. It doesn't allow you a minute to forget who you are supposed to be, and that really makes a difference in creating the atmosphere of the play."
It doesn't matter that these characters are - to use Masters' terminology - "incredibly campy and completely over the top. These people are very broadly drawn - in every sense of the word."
For example, Masters' character, Gloria, is described as "A real Camel girl - she'll walk a mile to the chair." Sara Cruncleton's Cheri is "The big blonde - her morals are low but her price is high," while Wilemon's Guadelupe is "San Juan's greatest export."
Then there is Mary-Eleanor, played by Cassie Hollis, the "innocent destroyed by the system." While the actresses agree that "Women Behind Bars" is an ensemble piece, Mary-Eleanor's story serves as the narrative thread for the piece.
"She starts out this scared girl who's been framed by her husband, and ends up a 'she-generate' like the rest of us," Masters said, laughing.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do this piece is because I haven't been involved in a comedy is a long time," said Hollis, whose last major role was as Cassandra in "The Trojan Women." "But still, I'm playing someone who ends up going through a whole lot of trauma. ... It may be a comedy, but it works at a much deeper, darker level."
"I think it's really about the ugliness of people," Sara Cruncleton said. "These characters are all really damaged people, and they're in a place where that ugliness of mind can run rampant. Occasionally, there are these little moments of hope that kind of rise up, but are quickly crushed back down - but in ways that end up making you laugh."
WOMEN BEHIND BARS
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Sept. 3-4, 10-11 p.m.
Where: Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.
Tickets: $15, at the door or by calling 633-8666.