Whores in the Barn

Like many boys, my friends and I dedicated much of our childhoods to the pursuit of televised nudity.

This was a tricky proposition in the early 1980s, before most American households were equipped with pipelines for pumping in porn on-demand. For years, the best we could get was the pre-network Channel 41, which, in its early days, sometimes let a Benny Hill slide by unedited. Finally, cable made it to DeSoto, and a friend’s dad signed up for Showtime and Skinemax and their after-dark avalanches of flesh: Malibu Express, Hollywood Knights, Emmanuelle after Emmanuelle.

It was in this spirit that we anticipated The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Imagine it: an R so hard that many TV stations wouldn’t even run commercials for it. Dolly Parton as a madam in a bustier. What potential! What a feat of engineering!

Of course, for our purposes, the movie was a crushing disappointment, a heap of singing, dancing corn pone. My friend was out in 15 minutes; I made it all the way through, terrified by feelings I hid for years: I really liked all those songs.

This silly musical helped me fall in love with the form. And though I’ve enjoyed the movie several times over the years, the Barn Players’ current production is the first chance I’ve ever had to catch it live. Sadly, as it turns out, the idea of Whorehouse is once again better than the reality.

It’s no chore to watch Julie K. Fox (as Miss Mona, the madam) lord her negligee over Nino Casisi’s impressive set. The show is slight but frisky, its script a miniature Bartlett’s of ribald aphorisms, its sentiment as sticky as the goo in a McDonald’s apple pie. A couple of great songs notwithstanding, it’s easy to see why this doesn’t get staged much these days. It’s kind of a mess.

The Barn Players do their best, but many of the typical community-theater problems are in evidence here: scattershot acting, dancers struggling to keep their clothes on, frequent thunks from backstage, a general feeling that the show’s emotional beats haven’t been worked out.

Still, the players pull off several coups. A boot-scoot number involving Texas A&M football players starts big and tops itself three times. Pete Barrett, as the foul-mouthed sheriff, mounts his cussing-out-the-townfolks scene and rides it hard, long and hilariously. Playing the new whores in town, Laura Jacobs and Cassie Pettigrew sketch complex characters in mere seconds of stage time, and Marcie Ramirez whoops it up about the old bump and grind with a voice as sweet and rough as a candied saw blade.

As much as I savored these standout moments, I couldn’t help but wonder: Because many of the dialogue scenes lack spark, do the highlights seem to blaze only by comparison?

Then came “Hard Candy Christmas,” sung by our whores as they’re run out of town. It’s a cloying, tacky song, recently milked for laughs in Late Night Theatre’s 9 to 5 parody. But here, wrung from actors who believe in it, it soars, goofy and gorgeous, the cast all aglow not just with enthusiasm but with the thrill of really nailing something.
Iimagine that no honor in the career of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barry Kyle can compete with this: winning praise here, buried beneath the write-up of a community theater Whorehouse in a Midwestern free weekly’s theater column. But his funny-then-haunting production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (with UMKC’s graduate theater department) will have closed by the time this sees print, to make way for A Christmas Carol. For folks who missed it, I don’t want to rub this in — but damn.

Kyle is a master of motion and its emotional sense. His characters sprawl and spill as they speak, huddling together on a divan or collapsing in a lump upon a pile of pillows. I could have spent all three hours with my fingers in my ears and still would have found Three Sisters to be this fall’s singular theatrical event.

Because this is Chekhov, the talk sparkled, too. (The newish, pared-down adaptation by Nicholas Wright was appealingly colloquial.) Kyle’s mostly student cast came on as though they had originated these roles. Cassandra Schwanke, Angela Cristantello and Caroline Perreault, as the sisters, shaped laughter and heartache in the space between themselves and everyone else. Every moment seemed unforced, as if all this were simply happening.

Like life, just better. And more true.

Categories: A&E, Stage