Paper Dolls

Seven cliches don't add up to one interesting Woman

You have to admire author Janet Scaglione's daring. She sees modern woman as a seven-sided creature who has to negotiate among her competing facets every time she's faced with an important decision. And Scaglione doesn't tell us only of this division in Divas, Dy, DB and Me!; she actually puts on stage in front of us eight separate characters, representing a prima donna, a lesbian, a blond bimbo, a mother, a nun, a soul sister, a career woman — and the creature they all add up to, simply called Woman.

In Scaglione's understanding, dealing with multiple identities is what all women do — she calls it, in one memorable song, "Thinking Pink" — whereas men are more single-minded, and therefore less interesting. Not that Scaglione thinks men insignificant; no, they're often a central part of Woman's world, even if only as someone to defeat in sports (the character Dy) or to turn to when one's hormones are raging relentlessly (the character DB).

But Scaglione's real objective here is to celebrate the Female in all her fascinating complexity. So she shows us what it means to have so many inner selves in such basic situations as going out on a study date, learning about contraception, dealing with pregnancy, cooking for Thanksgiving, participating in adult education, traveling for business, and even having a heart attack. When it's over we're supposed to have a new appreciation of women, of the mental burden — or is it glory? — they all carry with so much aplomb.

Well, there's a problem with this intention. It may be that Scaglione is right about women, but from a theatrical standpoint, she's painted herself into a corner. By choosing to depict each facet of woman as an overfamiliar stereotype — nun, whore, mother, etc. — she's crowded her stage with predictable cardboard figures who always act true to character and almost never surprise us.

Consider DB, played by the delightful Gabi Campbell. This Dumb Blond, we soon learn, is interested only in sex and maybe (a little bit) in shopping at Victoria's Secret. That's the whole character. An hour into the play, she hasn't developed, has nothing new to tell us and has inevitably lost a good deal of our attention.

The same is true of all the others: of Dy (short for Dyke, and played by Megan Foster), whose only interest is beer and sports; of Grace (Nevada Caldwell) the anxious nun, who has nothing much to do besides warn the others not to sin; and of C.W. (short for Career Woman, and played by Jennifer Hicks), who never rises above a certain businesslike sobriety.

Scaglione exacerbates the problem by putting Woman (played by the author) and her seven sides in situations so familiar that there's little dramatic interest to keep us attentive. This is especially true in the first act, where love, sex and pregnancy are treated in ways we've encountered a thousand times before in movies and on TV.

Things get more interesting in Act Two, when Woman's business trip to Chicago turns into an all-night bender at the hotel bar and culminates in a heart attack. The drunk scene is the best (least predictable, most resonant) episode in the whole play, featuring the rebellion of all the Seven Aspects against their own consistency ("We're sick and tired of being who we are").

And after Woman has a heart attack, there's the truly poignant song "What if I Die?" and a charming scene in a sauna that may or may not be heaven. But to get to this point, we've had to tolerate so many clichés, we can be excused for maintaining a certain bored skepticism. Yes, the play does begin to shine at the end. But from a spectator's view, that's just a little too late.

Fortunately, Scaglione is a talented tunesmith, and it's possible to enjoy her music even when the action framing it is less than riveting. Her lyrics range from the mildly inventive ("When you're in love you have to use some tricks/ Show him some cleavage, pout and wet your lips") to the distressingly obvious ("He's the answer to my prayers/ I won't let him get away/ I have him where I want him/ And this time he's gonna stay"). Her pop melodies, on the other hand, are usually catchy, invigorating, the sort you wouldn't mind hearing two or three times.

But there's a problem here too: None of the show's actresses has a voice of musical-theater quality, so again and again we find another fine melody receiving another imperfect rendering (the best voices belong to Scaglione and Campbell).

Other aspects of the production are easy to like, though: Sheri Whittington's direction is pleasantly easygoing, the set (uncredited in my program) is credibly a shoe store at one moment, a room at a gynecologist's office at another, and the (also uncredited) costumes are appropriately emblematic of a nun, a butch lesbian, a bimbo and so on. And while I'm mentioning these stereotypes, I might as well finish the list: There's Gail Baker as Diva, Jenine Morehouse as Mom, and Jerry Spann as Sistah. All of them turn in creditable work in their parts; all of them would benefit from parts less clichéd.

But that, I suppose, would contradict Scaglione's vision. She genuinely seems to think that these caricatures exist as real parts of the female psyche and that every woman possesses all of them. As Woman sings in "Think Pink:" "When my life is out of balance/ And I'm feeling such despair/ It is comforting to know that/ Every one of you is there."

Whether it's as comforting for a theater audience is another question altogether.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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