You know it's not going to be just another evening at the theater when, in a pre-show announcement, the heavily female audience is asked to turn off their beepers, cell phones and "anything that vibrates."
Yes, The Vagina Monologues is back in town, a mere six months after the (by turns) raunchy, effervescent and solemn show first swept through the Mechanic Theatre. The Monologues, of course, were created after the playwright and actress Eve Ensler interviewed more than 200 women about their sexual experiences and compiled the most intriguing and provocative bits into a 90-minute theater piece.
This version stars Loretta Swit, best known for her portrayal of Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the television version of M*A*S*H. Now in her mid-60s, Swit still has famously swollen lips - but that wasn't the part of her most on display Wednesday night. That would have been her voice, which is as ripe, bruised and aromatic as crushed fruit.
Swit shares the stage with two New York-based actresses, Starla Benford and Kristen Lee Kelly. All three wear tomato-red tops and black slacks. They are perched on three black stools and sip from coffee mugs the same shade as their sweaters. Although no one actually says so, the color scheme probably is meant to evoke one of the half-serious mantras repeated all evening: "Be your vagina."
The writing in the Monologues probably is at its best when it is reportorial - when Ensler distills the gist of a particularly eloquent voice into a story. The writing is at its weakest when an interviewee seems unable or unwilling to fully articulate her experience, perhaps forcing Ensler to draw on her own imagination to fill in the blanks.
"The Flood," a monologue about a young girl's first, overwhelming experience of her own sexuality, is surprising and fresh. And oddly enough, it is more moving than a monologue about the gang-rape of Bosnian women. Although the subject matter is horrific, Ensler seems to not have established sufficient rapport with the victims to genuinely convey the experience of being assaulted - especially perplexing because she has said that she herself was molested as a child.
In addition, Ensler has an extremely idiosyncratic voice, a voice that is difficult for any other actress to wear with the necessary comfort and aplomb. All three actresses at the Mechanic start out wriggling and ill-at-ease. But as the show goes on, they become accustomed to the way this particular garment fits.
Early in the show, all three seem to be trying too hard to be funny. Swit mangles a Jewish accent, and the bits flop in which the trio recites the responses to two fatuous questions: "If your vagina could get dressed, what would it wear?" and "If your vagina could say two words, what would they be?"
Swit et al. try to respond in the voices of different characters. That would be truly impressive if they succeeded, since the actresses have just one line to make the switch. But they fall short frequently enough that the result is less funny than it would have been had they simply spoken the words in their own voices.
Luckily, such cutesiness is relatively short-lived. Midway through the show, when Swit impersonates a female sex worker, when Benford portrays a teen-age girl seduced by an older woman and when Kelly recites a monologue beginning, "My vagina's angry," any distance between the performers and their material has long since vanished.
At times, the Monologues seem less an evening of theater than a religious revival meeting. And, after 90 straight minutes of vagina worship, a perhaps dangerously charged-up audience streams out the Mechanic's doors, into the streets and to their cars. Ladies, start your engines.
The Vagina Monologues
Where: The Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 tonight; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. tomorrow; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Call: 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com