Flying H’s latest production, Women Behind Bars, allows us a very up-close look at the women living the prison lifestyle. Each has chosen her own campy, B-movie stereotype to survive the raunch and bad circumstance of a women’s correctional facility. Inmates paw each other like caged animals and fight over the slightest perceived threat to their territory, which makes one wonder what they’re really protecting. Easy: the same thing that anyone who plops into a non-descript import car and trudges off to a mind-numbing job protects. Like those souls, the inmates bide their time until they can emerge and release the soul inside that yearns to be free.
And those who will survive are the ones who have built the best façades. Blanche (Brenda Evans) walks around with a hand fan, quoting from Streetcar Named Desire. Guadalupe (Julian Acosta) truly puts the behind in Women Behind Bars and lists off all the family members she aches to see. She sneaks a chicken into the cell block, nurtures it, enjoying the eggs it gives in return until it’s taken away by her captors.
Mary Ellen (Megan McCorkle) enters the Women’s House of Detention wearing her claims of innocence on her sleeve. She is met by Ada (Shelby Maloney), a doll-clutching basketcase who blurts out sentences that seem random, loud and nonsensical but are actually loaded with depth and accuracy. Maloney’s is the kind of insight only available from someone who’s retreated into her own mind for protection. After seven years of imprisonment, Mary Ellen will mostly resemble Maloney’s Ada in the end, completely withdrawn into the last refuge of the psyche until the cage is sprung and she can roam free again.
The inmates have a few moments of freedom when they burst into a free-for-all jailbreak, quickly quashed by the prison matron (Paula Maxwell) and her handsome guard Louise (Robert MacNeal). “Did you think you’d make it?” The matron says. “You’re here because you didn’t make it.”
Those who have been following Orange is the New Black will relate to the bluntness of the material director Taylor Kasch selected. What’s more, there’s topical material inter-woven: The matron defends her role containing evil and lends a moral compass, then goes Cosby by giving Mary Ellen a Quaalude to make her complacent while she inflicts her own immoral agenda.
When the prison psychiatrist (Johnny Avila) insists that Blanche needs to face reality, she retorts in perfect Streetcar tone, “How can I, without the protection of makeup?” Her rant underscores the most important survival tool an inmate, or an office worker for that matter, can possess: a good mask to hide behind until they’ve served their time.
Women Behind Bars through Aug. 1 at Flying H Group, 6368 Bristol Road, Ventura, 901-0005 or www.flyinghgroup.com.