Women Behind Bars, Tom Eyen's terrifically funny homage to—and skewering of—low-budget Hollywood sex exploitation films was first produced in 1974 and is set in the '50s. Though it predates such twisted late-'70s TV soap operas as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and the Australian women-behind-bars gem Prisoner: Cell Block H, there are obvious parallels. Eyen, who contributed some scripts to Hartman, infuses his play with the same sense of dementia, hypercharged sexuality and tongue-in-cheek satire that proved so controversial in Hartman it was relegated to late-night viewing in most markets. The parallel with Prisoner: Cell Block H is even more pronounced: lipstick lesbians, bull dykes, working-class losers and sadistically corrupt guards unleashed in an all-women prison.
The plot isn't much: sweet, naive ingénue Mary Eleanor (the very funny Jennifer Bridge) is nailed for a botched service-station robbery, gets seven years and is tossed into a racially mixed cauldron of sexuality and frustration, where the women fight, bicker and molest one another. But they're united by their hatred and fear of the Nurse Ratched of this play: the prison matron (a deliciously sadistic Sharyn Case) and her henchwoman Louise (the decadently prurient Jessica Woodward). The game cast, paced by director Jay Michael Fraley, attack the already-volatile material with gusto, ratcheting up the sex, sultriness and, most important, comedy to a degree not often seen at a theater more known for dark dramas than wildly outrageous comedies.
The result is a play that is just as twisted and lusty as those shows that have helped Rude Guerrilla claim its niche as one of Southern California's most viscerally oriented, provocative theaters. But who knew the troupe could pull something off this mind-blowingly funny?
Women Behind Bars at Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; also Thurs., Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Through Sept. 23. $10-$18.