Smiles, but no laughs

Amy Danielson

Until this past season’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Outward Spiral Theater Company seemed to be in decline. This 6-year-old company had a string of non-hits, including David’s Redhaired Death and Dog Opera, both plays with poorly structured, underwritten scripts. But then came Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell’s campy ode to glam rock, which was one of the unabashed hits of the past season. The production featured a glorious performance by Jason Little, and the company extended the run twice, letting it play a total of three months.

After Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Outward Spiral’s reborn reputation may be difficult to live up to. With a show that outran expectations, Outward Spiral proved their ability to stimulate audiences with edgy, engagingly produced theater. So now we should expect more of the same, right?

Yes. But we get something else. Brave Smiles: Another Lesbian Tragedy, a satire by a New York-based comedy troupe called Five Lesbian Brothers, is instead a far cry from Hedwig. I spent more time at this production eating popcorn than laughing.

During Act One, I waited patiently for the plot to build as the actors stumbled from one faulty scene to the next. The first act attempts to engage us with incidents from the daily lives of five pubescent orphan girls in the Tilue-Pussenheimer Academy, based in some generic European country during the 1920s. These young girls are under the authority of the suggestively lesbian Frau Ludmilla von Pussenheimer, played by Gillian Martin with a coarse German accent. Her austere disciplinary approach renders the girls powerless when it comes to such mundane rituals as proper hand washing. They also find themselves lusting after women in response to Pussenheimer’s drill-like commands: “Horrible boys, no better than pigs. Remember that girls. Boys are pigs ñ filthy and disgusting.” To this, the girls shout out in unison their response: “Filthy and disgusting!”

The script starts from an absurd premise: That all of these orphan girls would grow up to be lesbians. The script itself is only occasionally funny, although I suspect that its intent is something along the lines of Kids in the Hall style of humor. Few scenes offer more than predictable comic setups. As an example, as part of an initiation ceremony into a girl’s smoking club (intended to titillate the other members), a new girl, Thalia (played by Andrea Wollenberg with a slight German accent) must sit under a blanket and pretend she is in a desert. Meanwhile, another student, the anxious and amorous Damwell (Suzy Messerole) attempts to trick Thalia into removing her clothing. After filling her head with thoughts of standing in the desert sun for days, Damwell describes images of blisters forming on Thalia’s skin and popping, the ooze mixing with hot sand. “Don’t you think you should take something off?” Damwell pleads repeatedly.

When Damwell finally gets hold of Thalia’s much-sought-after underwear, Messerole provides one of the play’s few strong, understated comic images. She holds Thalia’s unmentionables to her face, closing her eyes, and breathes in deeply. Finally, Messerole cocks her head slightly to one side, taking on a content pose, like that of a smoker taking a puff after a full day without a drag.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the comedy is far less subtle: This production offers ridiculous dialogue and silly, melodramatic musical stings, and the cast responds with exaggerated facial expressions. This style of performance generated laughs from about half of the audience half of the time, but only once or twice during the entire show for me. Forgive me if I no longer find this clichéd style of comedy amusing.

Act Two reveals the tragic deaths of each of the girls many years later, and after many love affairs between them. One dies in the electric chair after killing a burglar in self defense by thumping him on the head with a large book. With each affair and each ensuing tragedy, the play becomes increasingly ridiculous. While The Five Lesbian Brothers parody some classic lesbian literature and film (including The Well of Loneliness, Odd Girl Out, and Maedchen in Uniform), the Outward Spiral actors have not refined this style, and so they never get their timing and manners right for a spoof. Each actor plays several roles throughout the show, but often with awkward transitions and lingering accents from previous characters.

In the show’s press material, Outward Spiral’s artistic director Jef Hall-Flavin described his expectations that this production would be compared to Hedwig. He therefore reasoned that doing something completely different would yield less direct comparison. However, when a company shows that they are capable of greatness, they should anticipate comparison (and criticism) when their next show doesn’t measure up.


Brave Smiles plays through September 21 at the Loring Playhouse, (612) 343-3390.