New Rep Stage play provides social commentary with the sharp bite of wit


In a string of comic sketches where women play women, women play men and women play women playing men, no gender, age or ethnic group is safe from biting sarcasm.

"The Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives" will run today through Sunday and April 14-15 at the Howard Community College Theatre Outback.

The show, which opened last weekend to sell-out audiences, is produced by the Rep Stage Company, Columbia's professional acting company in residence at the college.

In a play with no plot, the fast-paced production is as serious as it is comic, providing social commentary on sexual and social stereotypes. "It's kind of like 'Saturday Night Live' -- it's irreverent about a lot of subjects," said director Valerie Costantini who also is the Rep Stage Company producer.

"It's feminist, but not anti-male. It pokes fun at women too. It's not anti-Catholic, but a whole segment deals with God and the church," she said. "It has more to do with looking at stereotypes. The play takes things to the logical extreme. But sometimes you have to go to the edge to see the middle more clearly."

Only two actresses perform the play's 14 scenes, which deal with birth, death, dating, dressing, romance, family, religion and feminism.

There are heavenly creatures who, over a box of bon-bons, mischievously decide which gender should give birth and how. They decide to add pain to the process, giggling at the prospect of twins.

They even come up with a compensation for men so they don't feel left out -- ego. And they return in the second act to check on their work. "That ego thing is really taking off," says one.

The two performers thank the establishment "for providing us with a chemical-free, meat-free and male-free environment" before they begin their act, which lampoons the feminist movement.

In a scene that draws parallels between the "bad girl" and "good girl," a streetwalker hustles as the other laments how she wishes she was married to Kenny Rogers. "I will be strong in an attractively weak sort of way," says the supposedly "good" girl.

A play in progress, scenes have been revised or added since the original show was written in 1984 by comedian and cable talk-show host Maureen Gaffney and actress Kathy Najimy. Ms. Najimy has since appeared in the films "Sister Act" and "Hocus Pocus."

The play premiered in 1985 in a New York cabaret, then moved to off-Broadway. Versions have been performed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and on HBO cable television.

After auditioning 50 actresses, Ms. Costantini cast Audrey Wasilewski and Peggy Yates because of their broad acting range, comedic timing and looks. Ms. Wasilewski is short and blond; Ms. Yates is tall and dark. "It wasn't just that I needed good actresses," Ms. Costantini said. "They had to develop a whole other personality in a moment's notice. They understand comedy. They have to be distinctly different in each character and very believable."

Because the script leaves out details on characterization, Ms. Costantini decided that she and the two actresses would develop each scene and decide together who would take which role. "We laughed so hard coming up with this stuff," she said. "But we worked things through -- it was a difficult, collaborative process. I wanted these actresses to feel ownership in the process of the development of the play."

The director pointed to a few of the difficult scenes, including the 8 1/2 -minute pantomime piece "Silent Torture" set to music where Ms. Yates goes through the regimen of getting showered and dressed, and the lengthy nine-segment piece that follows Catholic school girls through adulthood.

Ms. Yates, who just performed in "Noel and Gertie" in Alexandria, Va., said they totally immersed themselves in developing the characters. "We had to find out who they are," said the 32-year-old Greenbelt resident. "In other plays you do it once. Here, I do it 11 times."

She found pantomime particularly difficult, trying "to find beats of music to accentuate certain activities like the number of strokes when putting on mascara."

Ms. Wasilewski said the actresses tried to avoid developing stock characters. "We'd start out doing one thing and if it started looking like another, we changed," said Ms. Wasilewski, 27, who lives in Washington and is performing in the comedy "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center.

Sue Kramer, of the HCC Performing Arts Division, designed the minimalist set. Working with artist and faculty member Yifei Gan who painted a mural on the back wall, she incorporated his brightly painted, wooden abstract sculptures that lend a cartoonish look to the set.

Costumes too, are minimalist as actresses roll up or pull down sleeves to turn into adolescents, street walkers or barflies.

They change onstage, plucking wigs and boots out of two colorful trunks lighted from within in neon.

The two talented performers move flawlessly in the polished production, changing characters and accents as quickly as they remove a shawl. And in the scenes where they play men, it's nearly possible to forget they're women.

The Rep Stage Company will present "The Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives" today through Sunday, and April 14-15 at the HCC Theatre Outback. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.

General admission is $12 for Fridays and Saturdays with a $2 discount for students and seniors. Sunday matinees are $10. Box office: 964-4900.

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