After watching Episode Four of Room for Cream, the red-hot lesbian soap opera currently running through June at La Mama, it was clear that the audience didn’t want to leave. They were milling about, chatting with friends, obviously having had a good time, and now a bit confused about what to do next. I’m sure the bartenders in a three-block radius of East 4th Street are happy The Dyke Division has arrived. One of the brains behind the operation, sprite-like Jess Barbagallo, appeared from thin air wearing a little black t-shirt saying ‘I Fucked Your Girlfriend’ to let me know she and her cohorts would meet me around the corner in a few. Then she disappeared into the crowd.
There seems to be a little pixie dust in the air of The Dyke Division, The Two-Headed Calf’s first major undertaking: the production of an 11 episode live lesbian serial soap running over the course of six months. It includes dozens of actors and special guest stars in each episode that are not actors but primarily ‘queer art stars.’ The Dyke Division was created specifically for this project and it includes Jess Barbagallo, Laura Berlin Stinger, Laryssa Husiak and Brooke O’Harra. Together, the four have shaped the structure and arc of the story, hashed out the characters, decided on the cliffhangers, and then parceled out who will write each episode, with O’Harra directing them all. Where have they set their addictive potboiler of a soap? In scandal-ridden Berkshire County, of course.
Besides being longtime fans of the queer serial soap, which mainly has tucked itself in the corners of black box theaters in the downtown world (Beebo Brinker Chronicles aside), one of the driving forces behind The Dyke Division was to create roles for queer actors. Equally as important was to speak to their community, to find and cultivate their audience. According to the core players, and to a quick glance around the room, they are achieving what they wanted. The place is packed, and packed with lesbians. Ok, not everyone is a lesbian—the show is very, very accessible and doesn’t alienate unless you don’t know what a Soft Pack is (Google this immediately if you don’t know what it is).
“We can have a character who’s a sex shop worker who can actually talk about radical sex practices instead of complain about how well her anorexic frame fits a harness,” says Stinger—whose character is the straight chick documentary film maker that, one would guess, is soon to be flipped. “Or we can talk about tranny goat farm politics or have characters with intellectual investments in things like feminist film.”
Though sex and sexual tension are obvious through lines, The Dyke Division seems willing to tackle all sorts of subjects, including but not limited to: lesbian knitting circles, goat milking, organic farming and Pakistan.
There is a core of principle cast members, many of whom The Dyke Division have worked with before and they hone in on their individual talents and quirks— often writing them into the show. As anyone familiar with downtown theater knows, working with a cast of this size can be a scheduling nightmare, especially for the director, O’Harra. The process goes like this: On a given Monday, two weeks before a show, the actors get a script that The Dyke Division takes turns writing. Actors need to be off book by Thursday when they have their first rehearsal (in a church basement in Greenpoint). They meet again the following Thursday for another rehearsal. Then on Saturday they arrive at La Mama at noon and work up until the doors open for the 5:30 performance. That’s it.
“The biggest challenge in directing Cream is balance,” explains O’Harra. “Every element demands a balance of what we protect and what we let just fly by the seat of its pants. For example, we work with a combination of professional actors and amateurs, who bring something strange and unique into the room. I have to decide how to keep them in the world of the actors and yet let them disrupt our world and patterns of live performance. It also happens in tone—we fluctuate from somewhat realistic to very campy. How can we get the audience to buy and embrace all of it?”
Because of the pressure, the short rehearsal process, and the almost complete lack of tech, some of the charm—from an audience perspective—often becomes watching actors struggle not to laugh. There is a lot going on in any one episode, and timing becomes essential. If there is a slight frustration that’s apparent from The Dyke Division, it is only that they’d like more rehearsal and feel that often the degree of campy-ness can seem amped up because of it. But, you don’t come to a show like this for perfection, you come for what they dish out, which is smart writing, a talented cast, and lot of issues handled with candor, humor and depth that do not often grace the stage—but should.
“The thing that’s exciting about this project is the specificity of its content,” Barbagallo says. “On TV, there are too many commercial interests to satisfy in the portrayal of a queer community. I think programs like the L-Word start a conversation—well real-life lesbians actually started that conversation—and we have the opportunity with Room for Cream to write the dialogue in our language.”
Season One will be produced fully by La Mama in January and February of ’09. While that may solve some timing issues and give The Dyke Division a proper support system, there is something happening now, in its current state of stylized entropy, that makes for must-see theater.
With only six episodes left, things are starting to heat up. O’Harra is as cagey as David Chase as she teases the build to their “hard core season finally.” What The Dyke Division can say on record is that Berkshire County is in for some surprises—there will be a murder, some nudity, nurse/patient sex and much, much more…
Room for Cream, by The Dyke Division of Two Headed Calf (Jess Barbagallo, Laura Berlin Stinger, Laryssa Husiak and Brooke O’Harra, along with Brendan Connelly and Ben Forester) will be performed every 1st and 3rd Saturday at 5:30pm at The Club at La Mama E.T.C. Tickets: $8 at 212.475.7710 or www.ovationtix.com.
excerpt from Room for Cream, from Episode 5, written by Laryssa Husiak
CADIE: That is none of your business. I know you spoke to Bob Travis over at the Berkshire Arts Council. And I know you showed him the footage.
PORTIA: Why would I do that? I care about this film just as much as you do. Why the hell else would I have come with you to this shitty little town in the middle of nowhere?
CADIE: Because you couldn’t handle being left behind. But now – you’re leaving me behind. I just got off the phone with the New York funders – my saving grace on this whole damned project …
PORTIA: That’s great …
CADIE: No – it’s not great. They’re dropping me.
PORTIA: (a shift) Oh really?
CADIE: Now you’re interested. They said they really love the vision of the piece … the look of the whole thing.
PORTIA: You’ve done great work.
CADIE: (beginning to menace PORTIA) But I hadn’t even had time to edit, Portia. You sent them that footage without my permission. Along with a message that I was an “unstable” presence on set. That I was the reason for delays in shooting. That I started all the drama over at the Bearded Goat.
PORTIA: You have to admit …
CADIE: I have to admit what? You were stripping in Jersey before I asked your ass to come along on this project, giving lap dances to mall managers and video clerks.
PORTIA: And you were just checking out of rehab. Good girls always go bad, Cadie. Face the facts. This is my film now.
PORTIA fishes in CADIE’s bag and pulls out an empty bottle of pills.
PORTIA: Just what I thought. Better call Daddy and refill your prescription!
CADIE throws some lukewarm coffee all over PORTIA’s chest.
PORTIA: Oh no you didn’t. This is an Imitation of Christ collector’s item. Chloe gave me this!
CADIE grabs PORTIA’s hair. Cat fight, etc.