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STAGE REVIEW : Campy, Violent Peek at ‘Women Behind Bars’ : The spoof of 1950s prison B-movies provides ample portions of sadism, sex and serious portrayal. The play continues Fridays and Saturdays through April 20 in Santa Ana.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seven women crowded together in a small cell, cots, walls covered with graffiti, a solitary sink in the middle of the room, denim uniforms, transistor radios, some makeup--all in all a typical prison scene.

But all is not so predictable as it seems in the woman’s house of detention in Greenwich Village. In his treatment of Tom Eyen’s “Women Behind Bars,” Way Off Broadway Playhouse producer-director Tony Reverditto has pulled out all the stops to spoof prison B-movies of the ‘50s.

The plot is simple, but it must be to accommodate this parody involving these women who discuss the pressing issues of the day--their quench-it-in-any-way lust, legality of the electric chair in 1952, the year of the setting--when they aren’t plotting how to survive the sadistic prison matron and her toady assistant.

We get a glimpse of how these women became hardened to cell life with the introduction of Mary (Donna L. Getzinger), a sweet, innocent thing, framed by her husband for robbery. Through her association with the girls, we see her corruption via broomsticks, drugs and a lobotomy (after which she seems to have lost her furrowed brow). Not only that, she delivers a child.

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The center of attraction, however, is clearly R. McCaw as the Matron. Surely the initial R is meant to mask the sex of the actor. In any event, so forceful is McCaw’s performance that the actor actually crosses the line separating camp from serious portrayals. This sexual ambiguity hits one in the face when the Matron describes in detail what will transpire on her date one evening with some poor soul named Percy. This prospect of imminent and intimate contact with a man whips the girls into frenzy.

The cell is effectively designed, except for an annoying ceiling-support beam in the middle of the room. It places the audience into the cell with the girls and lets them see the Matron’s kitschy room--everything done up in leopard skin, including the frame of a portrait as well as the clothing of the subject. A mirror hangs from the ceiling. As for the costumes, it is amazing what one can do with denim: a Pollyanna dress for Mary, a saucy, off-the-shoulder number for Guadalupe, a tight, short, slit one for Cheri. Special effects deserve mention: At one point the girls get doused with a fire hose that substitutes light for water.

Be advised that even in mocking ‘50s prison movies, the play includes some violent scenes--two rapes, lobotomies, verbal and physical abuse. That, however, is offset by the gallows humor of scenes like the one on a New Year’s Eve seven years later when the girls know it’s midnight because the lights dim as Guadalupe is being juiced in the electric chair. And there is the contrast between the bleak quarters of the girls and the camped-out room of the Matron.

While the play is intended as a B-movie spoof, several production miscues can’t be ignored. When the Matron assaults Mary, Mary cannot escape because the door is locked; when the deed is done, the door is mysteriously unlocked. The sound from a radio took a noticeably long time to become audible. The number of beds and the number of girls don’t match up--perhaps it is supposed to be better for the girls that way.

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Most troubling is the change in attitudes from Act I to Act II toward the Matron. What accounts for the new defiance of Louise (Marnelle Ross) and the other girls? All of a sudden the play accelerates toward its ending. It also might have better served the story to have the girls age physically a little over the seven years that pass in the play. Finally, the scratchy film projected on the wall at the play’s beginning introduces the players, just like in a B-movie. Fine, but then why does it continue to list all the technical support too?

That could have come at the end of the play, except then there wouldn’t have been much room at the end for such an effect. If at any point it slips your mind that you’re watching spoof at its campy best, the ending washes away any such resemblance to reality.

“WOMEN BEHIND BARS”

A Way Off Broadway production of the Tom Eyen play. Produced and directed by Tony Reverditto. With Louise Martin, Valerie J. Ludwig, Stephanie Fargo, Mary Guibert, Michelle Fashian, Tally Briggs, Simone Slifman, R. McCaw, Marnelle Ross, Donna L. Getzinger and Rosalita Santanos. Associate producer, Robert Embree; associate director, Denison Glass; technical director, Del DePierro; makeup, Francine Reich and Cat Cass; costume designer, Mary Guibert and the cast; sound designer, Steve Schmidt; Light designer, Cathy Langston. Plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through April 20 at the Way Off Broadway Playhouse, 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana. Tickets $12.50. (714) 547-8997.

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