Hilarious 101 Humiliating Stories anchors PushPush repertory 

The Five Lesbian Brothers examine male-female dynamics

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." As a playful, avant-garde, all-female theater troupe in New York, the Five Lesbian Brothers seem immune to such self-esteem issues. Nevertheless, female inferiority complexes inform PushPush Theater's two productions of shows by the Five Lesbian Brothers, 101 Humiliating Stories and The Secretaries.

101 Humiliating Stories began as an autobiographical monologue by "Lesbian Brother" Lisa Kron, but PushPush co-founder Shelby Hofer performs the piece at the Decatur playhouse. It begins like a Spalding Gray-type monologue of comically shameful memories and experiences, many involving middle school, "geeky celebrity encounters," and mishaps with her personal appearance. She also wrestles with whether she should "out" herself at her high school reunion, and envisions how a closeted speech and an unnecessarily confrontational one could be equally disastrous.

The play itself, however, also turns out to be a humiliation for the actress. She loses her place, takes distracting cell-phone calls, interrupts herself and assures the audience that the emotions won't get too raw. Overall, she comes across as uproariously ill-prepared, with an intentional self-consciousness reminiscent of Ellen DeGeneres' early stand-up. Hofer and director Lawrence Keller work wonderfully well together: Hofer can sustain a pause for hilarious lengths to let the visual images or embarrassing implications sink in. 101 Humiliating Stories may be the most purely entertaining show I've ever seen at PushPush – and at 67 minutes, would make a great part of a "ladies night out."

Kron collaborated on the script for The Secretaries, a surreal black comedy along the lines of Heathers or The Stepford Wives, set in the secretarial pool of a large lumber company in Big Bone, Ore. Kathy Skinner plays Patty, the company newcomer whose Ivy League education and effortless attractiveness inspire envy among the veterans. Patty strives to work hard and fit in, but discovers that the other secretaries maintain a strange clique that's obsessed with dieting, exercise, fashion and firearms. They even pressure each other to drink Slim-Fast and avoid solid foods.

The play skews reality from its first scenes, in which the women recite a rhyming credo that concludes, "We are secretaries, we do things secretarial/And once a month we kill a guy and cut him up for burial." When Patty first meets a rugged lumberjack (Lake Roberts), the pair engages in casual chat while gripping each other in an increasingly erotic clench, making their flirtatious subtext overt.

The title roles of The Secretaries obsess over appearances, police each other's sexuality, and eventually resort to grisly homicides in the name of solidarity. The play never seems misogynistic, however, because the themes hinge on female peer pressure and how women undermine each other. PushPush's production lacks a certain polish, with inconsistent pacing and some rough performances, but The Secretaries' quirky comedy and offbeat point of view deserve promotion.

As if to balance the two female-oriented plays, PushPush adds a couple of men to the mix with a production of The Zoo Story, a one-act drama that launched Edward Albee's career in 1958. PushPush co-founder Tim Habeger plays Jerry, a talkative stranger who becomes increasingly intrusive with middle-class Peter (Charlie Adair), trying to enjoy his solitude on a New York park bench. Habeger gives Jerry a deceptively bland friendliness, as if to get Peter and the audience to lower their defenses. Adair seems tentative and overmatched as an actor, though, making the tale seem even more one-sided than it needs to be.

By producing The Zoo Story side-by-side with the Five Lesbian Brothers plays, PushPush suggests that male-male dynamics aren't nearly as cutthroat as those between women. With the ladies, you'll probably never see the knife coming before it cuts you down to size.

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