Diversionary/MOXIE Pulp!: Pathos Behind the Camp
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I’m beginning to think the four women who run the MOXIE Theatre company — Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Jennifer Eve Kraus, Jo Anne Glover and Liv Kellgren — couldn’t produce a bad show if they tried. This year they’ve been presenting their shows at the Diversionary Theatre space, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, while looking for a home of their own in North County, and their latest piece, Patricia Kane’s delicious Lesbian comedy Pulp!, is a bona fide co-production with Diversionary itself. Still, it seems more MOXIE’s kind of show than Diversionary’s, a woman-themed show (with an all-female cast) that offers real pathos and emotional depth under the insouciant surface wit.
Kane’s script had its world premiere in Chicago (where it takes place) at About Face, a Queer theatre company, in January 2004, and has since been produced in Atlanta and Boston as well. The Diversionary/MOXIE production is co-directed by Jason Southerland — who’s familiar with the play since he helmed it in Boston as well — and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Though billed as “an irreverent comedy with music that serves as a sexy homage to the sultry, jazzy world of 1950’s Lesbian pulp fiction,” Pulp! is actually quite a bit more than that. Interviewed last September by Howie Green for the Boston Edge, Kane explained that her script was inspired not only by the paperback originals about big-city Lesbian life produced by cheap publishers in the 1950’s but by the noir films of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
“The dialogue and delivery in old movies is always done with a heightened sense of expectation, like something big is going to happen any second now,” Kane told Green. “The dialogue in the old pulp novels is done the same way, like there is a vague conspiratorial tone to it all and some drastic event could transpire just around the corner. And these pulp novels are a part of Lesbian history, so I wanted to pay tribute to them.”
Pulp! is, among other things, a tribute to the courage and strength of those women who came out in the 1950’s when not only was coming-out not cool, it was downright illegal and could lead to the immediate end of your livelihood and sometimes even your life. The novels that inspired it, both those from the 1950’s and the quasi-legitimate literary works from even earlier — like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 Lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness, which obviously inspired Kane to call the Lesbian bar where Pulp! takes place “The Well” — were among the few clues women-loving women of the 1950’s had as to how to live a Lesbian lifestyle and manage their lives emotionally and sexually while still maintaining the necessary “cover” in the straight world to avoid being arrested, beaten, raped, disowned by their families or driven to suicide.
Pulp! is set in the year 1956. Terry Logan (Jo Anne Glover) leaves the Women’s Army Corps — in which she’s served as a transport pilot since “The War” (those words in Kane’s script are always spoken portentously and immediately followed by an explosion sound effect) — after she’s caught seducing a general’s daughter. Anxious to flee the South — not only Georgia, where she was stationed, but Texas, where she was born — Terry hops a train to Chicago. On the last leg of her journey she’s approached by Eleanor “Pepper” Rousch (Jennifer Eve Thorn), who sits next to her on the train. With each woman setting off the other’s “Gaydar,” Pepper recognizes Terry as part of the sisterhood and invites her not only to hang out at The Well, where Pepper works as a bartender, but gets her a job as a waitress and arranges a room for her upstairs in the building. The one rule for residents of The Well, as Pepper solemnly informs Terry, is, “No girls upstairs!” — an edict imposed by The Well’s forbidding owner, Miss Vivian Blaine (Liv Kellgren), who’s conveniently out of the country, vacationing in Paris, when Terry arrives.
No sooner has Terry established herself at The Well than she’s heavily cruised by Eva “Bing” Malone (Jessica John, who’s usually played sweet young things but has recently made the transition to edgier roles) the “bad girl” of Kane’s script, a Doña Juanita Lesbian who goes through women with the same love-’em-and-leave-’em abandon of the nastiest straight playboy. She also meets Winny (Terri Park), the butchest regular at The Well, an expert target shooter who’s determined to enter a shooting tournament and compete against men. Terry also encounters The Well’s “cabaret” shows, in which the women do what would now be called drag-king performing: they dress as men and sing, though rather than imitating specific male performers of the day (if this turn of the plot leads you to expect to see faux Sinatras, Dean Martins and Elvises, you’ll be disappointed) they adopt their own personae and sing their own songs.
The songs are actually compositions by Amy Warren and André Pluess, with lyrics by playwright Kane, and while they’re artful pastiches of 1950’s musical styles the words are a bit more sophisticated than those of the actual songs of the period. No matter: like the songs in musicals like Cabaret and Chicago, they are believable as stand-alone cabaret numbers but also advance the plot and depict the emotional issues faced by the characters. They’re also a welcome reminder that in this era, and well into the 1970’s, drag performers of either gender were expected to do their own vocals, not merely lip-synch to records. MOXIE has made it a trademark to feature singing in virtually all their shows, requiring their performers to have professional-quality voices, and the four cast members who sing (all but Thorn, whose character stays behind the bar throughout the “cabaret” sequences) come through beautifully in the vocal department. Veteran San Diego musical performer Leigh Scarritt is credited as vocal coach, a job quite well done.
What makes Pulp! special is that for all the campiness and the use of pulp fiction’s artificial conventions — from the first-person narration Terry delivers at key points to the musical “stingers” that punctuate especially significant pieces of dialogue (kudos to co-director Southerland for his sound design and Diversionary’s soundboard operator, Rob Norton, for making all the “stingers” and sound effects happen exactly when they should) — the characters aren’t the cardboard cut-outs one would expect to find in a piece with this title and theme. They’re real human beings with recognizable emotions. Even Bing, whom Kane could easily have made a one-dimensional villainess, emerges instead as a figure of real pathos, and her redemption at the end is credible and genuinely uplifting rather than a mere nod to pulp-fiction conventions.
Kane also deserves credit for tapping one of the most effective plot devices ever invented, but one that’s long since gone out of fashion: she keeps Vivian, the obvious “star” part, offstage (except for one song) until nearly halfway through the play — expertly building audience suspense and making us wait breathlessly to meet this formidable woman we’ve heard so much about. The only trick Kane missed was in her decision to write the play in one continuous 90-minute act, which was good for maintaining the tension but kept her from being able to pull one of the hoariest pulp devices — making the characters totally miserable and devastated at the end of act one so she can pull their lives together and give them all happy endings in act two.
Nonetheless, Pulp! is a marvelously entertaining and surprisingly moving script, well crafted by Kane and done full justice by the combined forces of Diversionary and MOXIE. David Weiner’s scenic design is outstanding, vividly recreating what the sort of 1950’s cocktail lounge we’re told The Well is would actually have looked like — though the jukebox seems a bit anachronistic. Amy Chini’s props are also authentic — just where did she get that old-fashioned microphone into which the cabaret performers ostensibly sing? Chris Walsh’s lighting is appropriately dark and moody — and it’s especially effective in the scene in which two of the characters dance together and one of them holds a burning cigarette. You can actually see the smoke rising from the cigarette and hanging in the air, just like in an old movie.
Though it’s hardly a world-shattering event in Queer theatre, Pulp! ably does what its creator set out to do: lovingly recreate the lost world of the Lesbian closet in the 1950’s and the courage and beauty it took to survive and flourish in it. Even those Gay men who boast that they never go to plays about Lesbians should break that rule and see this one.
Pulp! plays at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, through Sunday, June 11. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $27 for all performances ($23 students, seniors, military) and are available by calling (619) 220-2297 or online at www.diversionary.org