Madame Ovary

Andrea Dworkin is dead. Not a lot of laughs, Ms. Dworkin. She was the most radical of her generation of radical feminists. In lectures, articles and books--her first in the 1970s was titled Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality--Dworkin defined men as little more than moral cretins. She equated pornography with terrorism and tried to get it outlawed, saying its publication constituted a violation of women's civil rights. She described seduction of any kind (even between spouses) as sexual assault. Over her desk, it was reported, hung a photograph of an alleged rapist with a rifle pointed at his head and the caption "DEAD MEN DON'T RAPE."

Statements like that didn't help her cause. Dworkin was difficult to read, listen to, even to look at. Her hair looked like the aftermath of Chernobyl. She had a bit of a moustache (or it appeared that way in photographs). As more telegenic feminists such as Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) landed on the Today show and the best-seller lists, Dworkin, who dressed in XXL overalls for every occasion, wrote even more furious books and articles and retreated from public view.

Gloria Steinem, feminism's pretty public pin-up of the 1970s, remained loyal to Dworkin to the end, never attacking her friend for her out-there beliefs or her scary looks, but others didn't mind stating the obvious. "Dworkin pretends to be a daring truth-teller," wrote feminist and cultural theorist Camille Paglia, "but never mentions her most obvious problem, food." (It was reported that Dworkin died April 18 at age 58 from health conditions related to long-term obesity.)

"I don't hate men," goes one famous Dworkinism. "Not that they don't deserve it." She was easy to hate. She came to symbolize for many the fat, scowling, fire-breathing "femi-nazi" that ditto-heads and others love to use as examples of feminists who pose some sort of threat to humanity (and hu-womanity). She was so anti-everything when it came to men that it was interesting to read in Dworkin's obituary that she had spent 30 years in a relationship with the same man, civil rights activist John Stoltenberg, the last few as his wife. Insight into his role in the marriage might be deduced from the title of his book: Refusing to Be a Man.

Come on now, that's funny. Just imagine the honeymoon.

"Feminist" and "humor" too often have seemed mutually exclusive. So seeing Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' blazingly funny production of Parallel Lives (formerly The Kathy & Mo Show) in the same week that dour feminist icon Andrea Dworkin went to meet her maker (and if God is a woman, she's got some 'splainin' to do to Ms. D) seemed to invite some connections.

Writer-comedians Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney debuted their women-centric collection of a dozen sketches in 1989. The show was a smash in New York and L.A., so successful in fact that Najimy and Gaffney had a hard time leaving it to get on with their careers (you can still catch reruns of their cable TV version of the stage show on HBO). Najimy went on to co-star with Kirstie Alley in the so-so NBC sitcom Veronica's Closet, and she still supplies the voice of Peggy Hill on Fox's animated fave King of the Hill. Gaffney's best sitcom shot was as a kooky California guru on BBC's Absolutely Fabulous. She still acts and writes for TV and film. The gals recently reteamed onstage for Afterbirth, their long-awaited follow-up to Kathy & Mo.

Hard to believe that even with a new title, The Kathy & Mo Show could still work so effectively (even with those Holly Near references) on audiences all these years later and without the title stars in the roles. Najimy and Gaffney were so identified with it that it's like trying to imagine two other performers attempting Nichols and May routines (not that anyone's heard those in a while, but I'm old enough to remember when Mike and Elaine killed on TV variety shows).

A joy, then, to discover that CTD's pair of actresses aren't just good in Parallel Lives, they manage to freshen it considerably and even improve on the original here and there. Marisa Diotalevi, a busy Dallas actress who's also an out lesbian stand-up, takes on many of Najimy's characters. Matching her accent for accent, punch line for punch line is a newby to the CTD stage, Jody Rudman, a springloaded sprite who's a former federal prosecutor. With her husband, Rudman also owns the Tempest Tea shop on Lovers Lane. (How's that for a CV, Andrea?)

They're well-matched physically and vocally, these two, playing off of each other like they've been stage partners forever. They open Act 1 as wing-wearing heavenly hostesses, deciding for the Boss upstairs how men and women on earth will look, behave and procreate. Women will get to have the babies, they announce. "What does the guy get?" asks one. "Squat," says the other. Men's consolation prize for not being the baby-carriers will be "as much ego as possible...then we'll just hope for the best."

In quick transitions from scene to scene (director Cheryl Denson, one of Dallas' finest stagers of comedy, keeps the pace Lipton-brisk), the actresses deftly turn into squirmy teens realizing suddenly that West Side Story is a "rip-off" of Romeo and Juliet. They slouch believably as straight college kids out of their element eating at "Queer Denny's." Then Diotalevi in a kerchief becomes an Eastern European doing a commercial for tampons. "It's most important for poor dirt farmer to feel fresh," she says.

Rudman, who bears a twinge of Tracey Ullman around her eyes and her accents, appears as a Southern dollop of gravy who "wants to be a Mrs. Kenny Rogers kind of woman." She and Diotalevi really click in a longer sequence about three sisters (Rudman plays two of them) gathering to grieve for a beloved grandma who's died riding the Space Mountain attraction at Disneyland. "I never eat anything with a nervous system," huffs the veg-obsessed sis, suspiciously eyeing a buffet of gloppy tuna casseroles at the after-funeral feed.

As two older women attending a feminist drama for a junior college women's studies class, Diotalevi and Rudman come closest to Najimy and Gaffney's takes on the characters. Madeline and Sylvia are, in many ways, stereotypical yentas. But they are smart old birds who've seen a lot of life and don't take themselves or the world too seriously. Maddy and Sivvy are tolerant of young folk, too, including "your bi-sexists and your Lesbanese." And they giggle just a little at the fist-waving "womyn" they've come to watch in "Sister! Woman! Sister!", one of those noisy performance pieces that beseech the audience to "swim in the great uterus" and worship "the golden labia."

The sketches, some just a few minutes long, others stretched into one-act playlets, look at women and feminism lovingly and critically. Characters are gay, straight, young, old, male, female, Catholic, Jewish and questioning. One of the best scenes finds Diotalevi as a guy in cowboy gear warming a barstool in a honky-tonk and telling Rudman over and over how "verrry, verrry purty you look tuh-naht, sweet meat." Through the laser-sharp accuracy of the portrayals of these two hard-drinking small-town losers, the actresses make us sympathetic to both of them.

The most memorable moment of the evening comes from Diotalevi, accompanied by classical Bizet, pantomiming all the motions of a woman's typical morning ablutions, down to rolling her pantyhose just so and doing the hair dryer hair-flip. Physical comedy is the brain surgery of acting; one wrong move and it turns to tragedy. Diotalevi is a board-certified expert at it.

Parallel Lives is great fun, but on a deeper level it's also a brilliant, insightful thesis into the status of women. It's all there: oppression, fear, subjugation and manipulation. But we also see sisterhood, achievement, understanding, strength and wisdom. In their writing, Najimy and Gaffney do more to address what it really means to be a woman--whatever her age, race, religion, type or temperament--than Andrea Dworkin did in her 30-plus years of bitter male-bashing.

For the third year, Undermain Theatre is co-sponsoring a World Theater Day Parade to celebrate the performing arts. This year's parade is scheduled for noon on April 30, starting at Hall and Main streets, moving west on Main to Good-Latimer Expressway and back again down Main. The event will feature North Texas performers including the Chin Woo drum and lion dance ensemble and the Diabate West African drummers and dancers. The parade is expected to last about 45 minutes.

Last week in the review of Dallas Theater Center's My Fair Lady, there were two mix-ups. The correct name of the musical director and pianist is Jeff Lankov. And the theater where the production originated was put on the wrong edge of the map. The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but Portland Center Stage is in Oregon, not Maine.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner