When a play opens with two young women tipping across a dimly lit stage, wearing colorful, oversized, elongated, knit face masks and carrying a bat and frying pan, the audience knows it's in for a crazy ride — and that's exactly what they've got in Venus Theatre's newest production.
"Ding Or Bye Bye Dad," on stage at C Street's Venus Theatre through March 30, is filled with unexpected twists and turns. The drama often has the audience laughing out loud, while at the same time feeling the seriousness of the characters' experiences.
The play, written by Baltimore native Jayme Kilburn, revolves around the tortured lives of two sisters: Hamiere (Ham), a plus-size, outspoken, beautiful young woman with flaming red hair; and Boomer, her thin, blonde-haired sister, who most men find irresistible.
The sisters were raised by their abusive father, who's the unseen but ever-present character throughout the production. The fear the girls endured growing up under his thumb leaves them confused at times about their sexuality, relationships, their physical appearance and their safety.
"I never feel safe," said the usually angry Boomer, played by Amy Rhodes, who's been seen in numerous Venus Theatre productions, including "The Stenographer." Although her Boomer character says she wants a family, she actually hates children and when she gets a family, complete with a constantly crying baby, she feels suffocated.
But despite their dysfunctional upbringing and the baggage it left them with, one thing that Boomer and her sister, Ham, are very clear about is that they hate their father and wish he was dead.
"If dad died, I'd stay home from work, stay in my pajamas all day and eat ice cream," said Ham, played by Kelsey Hogan, an Emerson College theater graduate and newcomer to Venus Theatre.
The play goes back and forth in time from the sisters' early childhood, to their teen and adult years, played out on a sparse, psychedelic-painted, round stage. The play's director, Venus Theatre founder Deborah Randall ,said she chose music for the show that would reflect the sisters' tumultuous lives. Recognizable nursery rhymes, set to angry-sounding punk rock, established the mood and kept it intact as the play progressed.
At times, Randall had the sisters positioned in different corners of the stage, as they skillfully delivered funny, sad and powerful monologues to unseen characters. When they interacted with each other, although they argued sometimes, it was always obvious that they loved each other and would always have each other's backs, especially when it came to their father and other men in their lives.
In the playbill, Randall wrote, "I wanted to begin the  season with 'Ding' because of the color, comedy and textures ... and the love of sisterhood. For all that Ham and Boomer have seen and endured, they come back home to one another every time."
Ham and Boomer's past boyfriends and lovers, who are of the ilk that many confused, hurt and abused women sometimes end up with, are all played by Tina Fulp, a Duke University theater graduate. Fulp, who's been on stage at various local theaters, including Woolly Mammoth and The Studio Theatre, has the mannerisms down for most of the teenage, adult and gay male characters in the sisters' lives. She's especially convincing and has the audience often laughing when she plays the swaggering, beer-drinking, hockey player, who's Ham's friend but doesn't return her romantic interest.
"She was great," said playwright Kilburn, who founded The Strand Theater Company in Baltimore and now lives in New York. "Deb [Randall] told me she couldn't find a man to play all of the roles and wanted to know if she could use a woman and I was like, OK. I gave her artistic freedom and I loved what she did with the production."
The Venus Theatre show is the play's first staging. Kilburn says she wrote it when she was in graduate school studying feminism "... and missing being creative. It started out as monologues and then I shaped it into a speed-dating thing."
Which is where the "Ding" in the title comes in. During various points in the play — as the scenes change, the sisters go back in time or talk about pivotal moments in their lives — a ding sound is heard. The script also includes scenes from Ham actually being on blind dates with unseen men, where her fast-talking and sometimes abrasive, but funny, conversation is interrupted with a ding sound, similar to speed dating.
"I'd quit my job but I have lots of debt [ding]" she tells one potential suitor. "I want to be skinny and happy like all those couples on Facebook." Ding.
Although, their lives are filled with numerous problems and heartbreak, the dialogue is filled with cynical humor and the girls are very likable, especially Ham. Kilburn, who will soon begin a doctorate program in theater at Cornell University, says she felt emotional at times when watching the play at Venus this past weekend.
"I didn't think it would be emotional, but it was," she said. "It was the first play I'd written in 10 years. Some of it was factual, based on real life and some of it was not factual."
She said "Ding" was a story she felt needed to be told, because "Everyone has a story, different experiences and every woman experiences bad stuff, so I just said, let's say it."