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The Secretaries
a Comedy
by The Five Lesbian Brothers

COMPANY : Out Front Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Brady Street Theater [WEBSITE]
ID# 5502

SHOWING : May 02, 2019 - May 18, 2019



In the guise of satiric exploitation-horror, the all-female cast of "The Secretaries" takes an unflinching look at the warping cultural expectations of femininity. Pretty Patty Johnson is thrilled to join the secretarial pool at the Cooney Lumber Mill under the iron-fisted leadership of sultry office manager Susan Curtis. But she soon begins to feel that all is not right — the enforced diet of Slim-Fast shakes, the strange clicking language between the girls, the monthly disappearance of a lumberjack. By the time Patty discovers murder is part of these office killers’ skill set, it’s too late to turn back!

Director Heidi Howard
Peaches Jennifer Acker
Dawn Isake Akanke
Patty Hannah Rose Broom
Susan Rachel Frawley
Ashley Casey Gardner
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An Assault
by playgoer
Monday, May 20, 2019
Patty (Hannah-Rose Broom) is a new hire at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. She is set to work alongside overweight Peaches (Jennifer Alice Acker), lesbian Dawn (Isake Akanke), and Ashley (Casey Gardner), a fawning sycophant to the office manager, Susan (Rachel Frawley). Will Patty learn to fit in? Will she advance from being a receptionist to becoming a full-fledged secretary? Will she attain the coveted pink cashmere sweater of employee of the month? Will she be able to obtain a warm lumberjack jacket like the other women have? Such is the situation of "The Secretaries."

This play by the Five Lesbian Brothers is a campy delight, set in 1994, as indicated in the little songlet that starts the show. Little touches and cultural references reinforce the time period, in which a woman’s figure is required to be no more than a size 12 for continued employment and in which cat-calling lumberjacks have to deal with female empowerment, in a sort of gory, retro fantasy world. As might be expected in an all-female production by Out Front Theatre, there are more than a few hints of lesbian activity.

The set, designed by Vii Kelley, is functional, but pretty ugly. The most attractive feature is the floor, painted (by scenic painter Shay Vickery) in a black and brown checkerboard pattern at stage left that elongates and eventually peters out at stage right. Upstage there’s a rustic wood platform with logs stored under it and ratty curtains atop it. The stage right curtain is used for shadow effects until it is opened at the conclusion of the play for a bloody sequence. Between the two sides of the upstage curtain there’s a peaked door with a round window. The stage is populated with four distressed turquoise desks that get moved about for various scenes. A wheeled unit up left rotates to function as a lumber mill sign, a video store, and a restroom stall. Other units represent a car and a vibrating motel bed.

Katherine Neslund’s lighting design is pretty involved, with spotlights on individual desks and on various locations where action occurs. Like the set, the lighting is functional, but not particularly artistic or aesthetic. At least it’s far more effective than Kacie Willis’ dreadful sound design, in which background music nearly overwhelms the voices of the actresses and in which the pre-recorded lines spoken by men are played back with so much reverb and scratchiness that they’re essentially unintelligible.

Costumes, designed by DeeDee Chmielewski, give a real visual flair to the production. There are more costume changes than the plot would necessarily require, but they impress. Ms. Frawley is given outfit after outfit that is form-fitting and stylish and glamorous. The secretaries have a variety of more modest styles, from outerwear to underwear. While the garbled male lines are playing, one of the females dons a plaid lumberjack jacket and a mask to mime the gestures of the supposed man who is speaking.

Heidi S. Howard has directed the show to have a lot of sequences as stylized as the male mime, featuring silhouettes behind the curtain, choral intonation, exaggerated poses, and delightful body vibrations on the Magic Fingers bed. She has gotten fine performances out of all her performers, who indicate character with looks and quirks that are sometimes more indicative than the lines they speak. Ms. Acker plumbs the shallow depths of her comedic character, and Ms. Gardner’s smoldering deadpan highlights her jealousy of the new girl in the office. Ms. Akanke has an earthy energy as Dawn, and Ms. Frawley is menace and glamor personified. Perhaps best of all is Ms. Broom, who invests newcomer Patty with innocent enthusiasm and raging hormones as the central figure of the story.

The script pretty early on hints as to what will happen over the course of the show, but the anticipation that is set up in the first act falls apart somewhat in the second act when what we’ve expected occurs. The second act also contains unexpected elements that may not be welcome: a throw-away cigarette-smoking sequence that fouls the air for the rest of the show, and messy items propelled into the audience. The quirky camp that defines the show starts to dissipate before it’s sparked by the bloody climax, and the climax itself, which occurs far upstage, is marred by underscoring that competes with the unamplified voices of the actors.

Heidi S. Howard and the cast have put on a production of "The Secretaries" that gives the script its full due. The costumes even elevate the script, while other technical elements alternately enhance and detract from it. For audiences eager for a campy, all-female equivalent of Charles Busch-like entertainment, "The Secretaries" is tailor-made. Just don’t go to it expecting a moral. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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