Without a doubt, A Criminal Sorority provided me with one of the most entertaining evenings I've spent watching theater since I moved down here. Presented in a less than perfect location -- Rose's Bar & Lounge -- where glasses clink, people shoot pool and bar patrons shout on the telephone, the cast and playwright manage to grab your attention for three acts, strike the funny bone, tug the heart strings many times, and generally produce a creative, excellent show. If people want to know what I'm ideally looking for in the way of new plays that address the issues and ironic point of view of the Nineties, they need look no further than this work.
When this semi-camp, semi-serious take on women behind bars opened last January at another South Beach club, it played to packed audiences. Word of mouth had obviously spread around the Beach. According to what I heard, however, that cast was less than adequate. But I cannot confirm that, having missed the previous production. All I know is that the new cast (all fresh into the play, with the exception of Liz Dennis) is almost perfect.
With the entire action set in a small, cramped prison cell, you might think the setup might grow tedious. But Mick Farren is too good a writer to let such a thing happen. Once a lead singer with two of Britain's most notorious punk-rock bands, the Deviates and the Pink Fairies, he's now a successful science-fiction writer with more than a dozen published works. A Criminal Sorority is his first attempt at playwriting, but his virginity in the form hardly shows. Yes, there's too much exposition at times and the dialogue is sometimes artificial, but not enough to matter. Many great playwrights didn't start writing this well until their tenth or eleventh try (John Patrick Shanley, for one).
Mind you, I must stress that this piece is for the young and young at heart. It contains mucho profanity (it is set in a jail cell), mucho smoking (ditto), and nasty cracks about today's society in frequently lurid terms (society deserves it, don't you think?).
Farren's premise is that even in the criminal underworld, women fare much worse than men. To prove this, he slowly unveils the stories of these four women who are pacing and arguing and bonding in a holding cell while waiting for their trials. Amanda, an ex-Vegas showgirl who actually walked out of one of Elvis's parties because it was "too geeky," was arrested for running an upscale hooking operation, in the mode of Heidi Fleiss. She's hoping someone will pull the necessary strings because she owns "a little black diskette" detailing the fetishes of some rather notable people. But she also fears her rich male clients may conveniently abandon her in her time of need.
Cheryl is a professional cat burglar, a ragingly aggressive woman who watched too many jewel heist films with Cary Grant and Robert Wagner. She loves breaking into houses and violating her victims most private possessions (underwear included), often just by fondling them. She's proud of the fact that she works alone, and that her crime is a rare act among females. Maria is a sassy broad with a big mouth, who started managing her boyfriend Ruben's cocaine business when he became more interested in shooting people than making money. Ruben was apparently arrested (the play isn't clear on this point), but he goes free by giving up names -- while Maria is slated to face trial on drug-selling charges.
The only one who doesn't fit into this women's group from hell is prissy little Price, who embezzled $280,000 from her sleazy film-producer boss when he dumped her for a huge-breasted bimbo.
Nothing predictable happens in this piece, and that's the reason I could sit through it again and again. Unlike so many formulaic plays written these days to please mass audiences, Farren is a true creator. It isn't pure camp like such predecessors as Women Behind Bars, but it isn't totally straight, either. It isn't comedy; it isn't tragedy. It's -- Criminal Sorority -- unique and daring for today's dramatic world.
The girls don't necessarily nurture each other and they don't always fight, but they do engage in periodic conflicts about real issues, such as how men treat women and how women are mostly to blame for it. Maria, the accused cocaine dealer, resents the feminist movement, because all it means is that she'll do harder time than before. "This is not my idea of affirmative action," she snipes, cracking her gum. The three harder-core chicks think upscale Price will get away with her crime because of the class difference. Cheryl, the burglar, thinks the worst they'll do to Price, an educated female accountant, is "take away her Saks's card and sentence her to a thousand hours of wearing cheap accessories." Meanwhile, Cheryl and Amanda fight for dominance like two fearless and haughty lionesses in the same cage. And even after all this fun and action, there's a solid ending. Unbelievable.
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Jeanne Talbot's Mondo Miami theater company staged the first version of this play last year, and she does a wonderful job again of directing the cast and somehow making them look natural inside that small makeshift space. Of the cast, Deborah Magdalena as Maria is a knockout, Rosie Perez with deeper, darker Latin soul. She makes every line funny, and every emotion super-real. By the way, she's the sister of Nestor Torres, proving that there may be a talent gene after all.
Liz Dennis as Cheryl does her usual superb job, playing the cat burglar as a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer's Cat Woman and Bette Davis's Baby Jane. She seethes with rage, but never once rings false or goes over the top. Robin Trapp as Amanda started out a bit stiff the night I attended, but once she began her confrontations with Dennis, she relaxed and turned into the perfect icy madam, accustomed to keeping bad girls in line. And Trapp knows well how to use her statuesque, well-endowed body to emphasize her character's personal sense of power. Paige Alenius does a creditable job as Price, possibly the most difficult role because she must stay so passive. She does bring humanity and dignity to her part; her only problem is a tendency to whine too much.
As the Matron who makes brief cameos in and out of the girl's lives, Mario Silva in drag is the only weak link. He's nervous, disconnected and his accent is so thick he may as well be speaking Spanish. Yet in a strange way, his inadequacies fit the piece as a whole, making the girls look great and making prison officials look appropriately stiff and stupid.
It's nice to know that people are painting the theatrical canvas with broad, innovative strokes these days. I predict A Criminal Sorority could become a camp classic like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, providing it finds the perfect venue and people take this piece of advice: rush to see it. You'll have a deliciously nasty time!