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Feminine mystique 

Spare Rib Festival grapples with female perspective

The feminist credo "You can have it all" was always easier said than done, and it's gotten a lot of reconsideration in the past decade or two. I suspect women would like to amend it a little bit, but "You can have it all, give or take" or "You can have heaping helpings of it all, but not all of it" just don't have the same ring.

How a woman's choices and priorities shape her identity provide the crux of two plays in the Spare Rib Festival at Savage Tree Arts Project. Twice each year, "the Savages" stage a multidisciplinary repertory of theater, dance, comedy and other art forms, united by a common theme. Punning on the creation of Eve from Adam's rib, the Spare Rib Festival considers women's issues, but by the end of Why We Have a Body and God Is a Biker Chick, things seem more confused than before.

An intriguing aspect of Claire Chafee's Why We Have a Body considers whether women really are free to choose. Mismatched sisters Lili (Savage Tree co-founding artistic director Kristi Casey) and Mary (Alison Hastings) commiserate over "the repetition compulsion," the psychological tendency to do the same thing over and over, vainly hoping for a different outcome. Lili sees it in her love life -- she's a lesbian private investigator who tends to get hung up on straight women. For Mary, it's a little more complicated: She's a recidivist criminal with a fondness for handguns and convenience stores.

Lili tries to juggle responsibility for prison-escapee Mary while puzzling out her tentative romance with Renee (Suehyla El-Attar), a presumably straight paleontologist married to a man. Mary's mother, Eleanor (Josie Burgin Lawson), meanwhile, proves incommunicado as an explorer in South America, but she turns up for speeches about being a bold careerist and studying the lesbian character. For instance, Eleanor observes that the lesbian brain is divided into three sections: "memory, lust and hammering doubt."

It's hard to know how seriously Chafee intends the audience to take such lines. Why We Have a Body proves primarily made up of monologues, lectures and one-sided conversations that expound on self-absorbed metaphor while neglecting the play's relationships.

When the women actually speak to each other, Why We Have a Body shows insights into the dynamics of tentative lovers and siblings at odds. A flashback to Lili and Renee meeting on an airplane, their casual politeness turning to serious flirtation, feels far more real than the speeches about dinosaurs or Sylvia Plath. Why We Have a Body suffers the farther it goes from realism. When Lili discusses Mary's ability to send "telepathic faxes," or when the playwright gives the gun-toting criminal a job as a crossing guard, Why We Have a Body feels so contrived as to be a little insulting.

In the workshop production of Robin Seidman's God Is a Biker Chick, the best thing is the title. Confronted with a positive home-pregnancy test, 21-year-old Cee (Erin Greenway) prays to see God -- who unexpectedly appears, dressed in leather and riding a kid's scooter.

But is she (Josie Burgin Lawson) really a biker chick? Not if being a biker chick means anything more than wearing leather. If you imagine the Almighty as a feisty, foul-mouthed, hedonistic road-house habitué, you'll be disappointed to see her as a soft-spoken, nurturing figure who also tends to appear as both Martha Stewart and a deceased schoolmate of Cee's who used to work at a cosmetic counter. Defining the nature of God may be a steep task for any play, but Biker Chick director Ken Hornbeck has trouble clarifying the plot's imaginary/supernatural rules.

Cee holds down an internship at a preschool, and her relationship with her boss, Susan (Judy Thomas), seems rife with material for a whole play on its own. Though a lesbian, Susan closets herself for fear that she'll have to forfeit her calling as an educator. Cee falls for Susan, anyway, but has a one-night stand -- and gets pregnant by -- her close friend, Doug (Nick Tecosky).

God Is a Biker Chick, like Why We Have a Body, discovers intriguing complications in coming-out stories. In Chafee's play, El-Attar finds pathos in the failure of Renee's marriage, and humor when Renee starts appreciating women as erotic objects. ("Women are everywhere!") Biker Chick's romantic triangle feels perfectly plausible, but the play gets sidetracked by sophomoric musings as to whether God exists.

God Is a Biker Chick and Why We Have a Body both seem to spin their wheels when the characters talk to God or expound on Joan of Arc. Like the audience, they start learning much more about who they are and what they can be when they listen to each other.

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