From stage left of the paint-splattered canvas set - designed to evoke faded brain cells - music begins. Themes from glaring examples of lowdown popular trash, such as snippets of the McDonald's song about deserving a break today and the twice-incarnated Addams Family whistle, waft ominously through the air. Like a fractured Greek chorus, six fearful, soul-drained women slowly emerge from the darkness, alternately shining flashlights on their stark faces. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, they ask in song: Did it ever cross your mind that things are out of whack, in a world where tabloids announce an Ancient Mummy gave birth to Elvis's baby and the need for information has been replaced by the need for Vanna to provide another vowel?
In a lighthearted (but dark-souled) and often inventive manner, Mark Houston's Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want To Know launches a full-scale attack on what seems to be a uniquely American lack of intelligentsia. In the style of a cabaret revue, the production's skits are reminiscent of early Saturday Night Live; with its cutting wit and incredible fun, it's a piece a wide range of audiences can appreciate. Even the more risque numbers - such as why Barbie and Ken can't climax in any position, and why God truly is an alien - land so lightly and deftly they tickle rather than offend. (But keep in mind that some of the satire means to be nasty - Barbie and Ken, for instance, served as an entire generation's prototype of the perfect male-female relationship. Think about it.)
Under David Spangler's new and innovative direction, The Drama Center now earns two consecutive medals for bravery by bringing this relatively fresh work up from the Red Barn Theatre in Key West, where it just completed a sold-out ten-week run. The Center's previous production, The Cover of Life, also exemplified new directions in playwriting and a willingness to take risks with audience expectations. Spangler obviously feels that not everyone in Florida is brain dead, and I applaud him for his faith.
Not all of the dozen ditties in this maniacal musical leave a lasting impression, and the package as a whole could use more cohesiveness and some tightening up. It comes nowhere near the genius of similar wacked-out stage experiments, like The Kathy and Mo Show or The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. But quite a few entries fire deadly comic salvos, under the titles "Rambi" (where Disney characters must cope with the new cinematic version of their once-peaceful fawn) and "Get Proud of Me" (where two women, one a disembodied head, hurl abuse at insensitive men). A fractured game show called "Wise Up or Die" crucifies a confused yuppie who reads too many nonfiction best sellers, and a brief but powerful number called "I Should Have Known" questions whether talent really matters in an age of hyped entertainment products. Overall the piece requires some patience from the start, but in the end, it's worth it.
Energetic and committed to offbeat comedy, all six damsels in societal distress emerge as talented singers and actors. Although each makes a sound contribution, the stunning Paula Jo Chitty and belting Jodyrae Geckler shine slightly above the rest, especially in the outstanding headless number. Director Joy Hawkins, also part of the cast, knows how to stage and surprise; musical director Michael Robinson hits some hot keys as one-third of an expert trio of musicians. While the melodies weren't written to yield hits, they serve a simple purpose - to sound snappy and not intrude on the arch lyrics.
Thanks to Houston (who acknowledges the contributions of seven other writers to the show's story line) and Spangler (promising to bring forth more current or new works), South Florida audiences can enjoy a spirited two hours snickering at spoofs of soap operas, self-help books, MTV, evangelical preachers, mail-order voodoo dolls, weight loss, tabloids, and the rest of the lies a sitcom-driven society seems to crave so much. Just remember that in many cases, you're laughing at yourself.
SIX WOMEN WITH BRAIN DEATH OR EXPIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW
Music and lyrics by Mark Houston, directed by Joy Hawkins; with Paula Jo Chitty, Jodyrae Geckler, Judy Hults, Susan Hawkens, Joy Hawkins and Chris Stone. At The Drama Center, 2345 W. Hillsboro Blvd, Deerfield Beach, through June 14. Performances Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $15. Call 570-9115 for more information.