Out of Sterno
Portland Stage Company
Through Sun., March 22
Thanks mainly to its opponents, feminism has a rather glum and hostile public image. No matter how gynephilic one may be, the word tends to conjure images of scowling, mannish man-haters with hairy armpits and no sense of humor.
Why must this be so? Can’t feminist ideas be presented in a fun, cheerful, colorful manner without being watered down?
The answer is yes, as proven by Out of Sterno, a play by onetime stand-up comedian Deborah Zoe Laufer. Portland Stage Company is presenting the first full production of this sneakily substantial piece of eye-candy.
In this context, Sterno refers not to the brand of canned heat, but to a small town located in the geographically undefined heart of America. Our heroine, Dotty (Janice O’Rourke), has lived in Sterno all her life. In fact, since getting married seven years ago, Dotty has not even left the house. She spends her days working on kindergarten-style art projects and lives mainly for the dinner hour, when her lunkheaded, gas-pumping husband Hamel (Torsten Hillhouse) comes home, pulls out the finger guns and says, “Hey, kid!” Every day and night, it’s the same thing — and Dotty thinks she’s found happiness.
Out of Sterno is the kind of play one could easily imagine as a Pixar film. Dotty’s house looks like it was designed in crayon by a kid high on Pixie Stix. It’s Pee Wee’s Dream House. The set design is whimsical in the extreme, with little vehicles scooting across the stage and objects descending cartoonishly from the sky. (Bravo, set designer Anita Stewart!) Dotty herself is little more than a cartoon doll when the show begins, a child. She has no will or identity of her own.
Dotty is forced to reconsider her self-definition as beloved, dutiful wife when Hamel starts cheating on her with Zena (Patricia Buckley), the owner of both a hair salon and an abrasive, long-nailed sort of New Joisey glamour. Hamel denies his comically obvious infidelity. Dotty tries to follow her mother’s advice — “Don’t believe what you see, believe what you’re told” — but ends up finally leaving the house to track Zena down. From there, a chain of happenstance results in Dotty taking a job at the salon, where her education truly begins.
“I’m just trying to find out how to be a real woman,” Dotty plaintively says, assuming that a real woman is one who can keep her husband. Comically/tragically suggestible, Dotty tries one clichéd feminine look and identity after another — hootchie mama, sainted mother, even vengeful spouse — only to find that none of them fit. Dotty doesn’t know who she is, and discovers the women’s magazines can’t tell her. She turns to the audience and plaintively asks, “What’s wrong with me?”
O’Rourke owns the show as Dotty. She can play naive without looking stupid, and by curtain time she has presented a subtle, seamless portrait of our heroine’s growth into full adulthood. O’Rourke also excels within the show’s day-glo silliness. To see Dotty trying to navigate the stage in six-inch heels and a padded, zebra-skin body suit is to be mightily amused.
Also amusing is Buckley as Zena, who enlivens the script and Dotty’s life in equal measure. Sure, Zena’s a wife-stealing gold-digger with all the stylistic subtlety of a mob moll, but she’s a font of brassy one-liners. As a woman who takes no crap from anyone, Zena proves a kind of role model for Dotty (as when she tells the sheltered hausfrau, “Your mother’s a moron.”). Her personality, like her outfits, is delightfully unsubtle.
Most of the other characters in Out of Sterno are played by the versatile and endearing Phillip Taratula, often in drag. Dotty encounters him again and again: once as a pantsuited feminist, once as a syrupy Southern matron, once as a henpecked husband who doubts his own manliness. Taratula makes them all funny without reducing them to mere caricatures. Nice work.
You can enjoy Out of Sterno for its cheerfully non-doctrinaire tale of feminist awakening. You can also enjoy the show for its Crayola/Hello Kitty/Maira Kalman cartoon exuberance. But, like Dotty, you don’t have to accept any false choices — you can enjoy it for both.
— Jason Wilkins
Out of Sterno runs through Sun., March 22, at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. For a full schedule and tickets, visit portlandstage.com.