There is something incongruous about seeing a production of “Women Behind Bars,” a 1975 Tom Eyen play that was a smash hit when it starred Divine and opened Off-Off-Broadway, in the former church on quaint (and historic) Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights that the Heights Players have called home since 1962.
The theater and its location are seriously cute and the audience — judging by a recent Sunday afternoon production — is north of 50. But this production of the camp classic about a group of inmates at the Women’s House of Detention, a send-up of 1950s movies about female prisoners, directed by the obviously talented Ted Thompson and his team of designers, is saucy, sexy, and seriously irreverent.
There is not a weak link among the ensemble of talented, perfectly cast actors, who devour the scenery out of a play that is a laugh-out-loud antidote to homophobia, misogyny and intolerance of all kinds.
Props go to Jami Lea Cook, Das Elkin, Eileen Elliot, Shatara Hale, Phyllis Sperling, Elizabeth Rinaldi, Lucy Apicello and Ela Pares, the talented actresses who approach their roles as the female inmates with such gusto and overall abandon that you walk out of the show wishing more theater had this level of energy and ingenuity.
But if you really need a justification to journey to this show that is just a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn–Queen Expressway, Michael Blake, who cross-dresses as the matron, is all the reason you need.
Indeed, Blake, who at 63 is playing his first female role, doesn’t pull any punches as the hilarious and outrageous control freak Pauline. After the show, I interviewed Blake, who looks nothing like the heavily made-up prison matron in white that he plays.
“I’ve never played a woman before,” Blake told me. “But at each rehearsal, I thought of the authoritarian women in my life, the lunch ladies, aunts and nuns, who educated me. They were all tough cookies. And that’s how I immersed and marinated this character.”
It’s obvious that Blake adores playing the Matron.
“She did have a heart and she’s such a control freak. She wanted to love the women, but she loved them to the brink of fear.”
I asked Blake how he it felt to put Pauline’s bright red lipstick on. “When I put on the make up, I noticed a resemblance with the women in my family. I saw the aunt I loved, also my sister,” he told me.
You’ve got two more weekends to catch the show and don’t let the sign on the door scare you away: “This show contains nudity, simulated sex, violence, as well as immature themes. Due extreme nature of this production no one under 18 is allowed.”
Actually, it may be all the motivation you need. Make it over to Willow Place to catch Blake and the whole cast of wild and wonderful women behind bars.
“Women Behind Bars” at the Heights Players [26 Willow Pl. between State and Joralemon streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237-2752], through Jan. 23. Tickets $15. For info, visit www.heightsplayers.org.