Theater Review - Between the sexes

Sensurrond's Beaver Festival gnaws at gender conflicts

"If you can say 'vagina,' why can't you say 'beaver?'" Justin Welborn wants to know. If The Vagina Monologues can be a national hit, co-creators Welborn and Berny Clark reason that their own show, The Wide Open Beaver Festival, shouldn't be any more objectionable.

In a response to gender-specific plays and programs like The Vagina Monologues on one side and Comedy Central's "The Man Show" on the other, Welborn and Clark have written and directed The Wide Open Beaver Festival, presented by Sensurround Stagings as the final show of PushPush Theater's "Spring Forward" celebration.

"It's a cross between vaudeville, sketch comedy and Monty Python, with live music, dance, some puppetry, masks, political propaganda and staged combat," says Clark. But while the lineup sounds full of outlandish elements, including cavemen, cheerleaders, penis dragons and Girl Scout puppets, Sensurround artistic associates Welborn and Clark have serious goals.

Beaver's conception came last summer when Welborn and Clark attended the Marginal Women festival of plays by and about women. "We came out of that feeling, 'This has so many good people in it — why do we feel so separated from it?' I felt marginalized," says Welborn.

"Gender festivals tend to be one-sided by definition. They have good intentions, but they don't open up discussion between sexes," says Aileen Loy, part of Beaver's 11-actor ensemble and, with Mike Katinsky, one of Sensurround's co-artistic directors and founders.

After Marginal Women, Welborn and Clark joked that they'd have to write their own gender show — and the joke took on a life of its own. "We were talking about doing a parody of that kind of show," recalls Clark, "but the more we talked about our pool of material, it became more complex. The Wide Open Beaver Festival is not about isolating or objectifying men and women. Every single piece focuses directly on how men and women relate to each other and their attempts to communicate, failed or otherwise."

For Loy and the Beaver boys, the title, like the show itself, isn't a promise of smut but a desire to confront and confound audience expectations of sexuality and gender roles. They acknowledge that the show will feature male and female nudity, but are coy about it: titillation will almost certainly not be the end result. "I want to move the audience," says Clark. "It would be the highest form of flattery if someone were to get up, walk out and not come back."

Formed in August 2000, Sensurround Stagings presented lively pieces of stage-craft like the Elvis movie parody Viva Los Alamos and a stage version of Clockwork Orange with Welborn in the Malcolm McDowell role. Following Clockwork the theater took about a year off from staging plays to pursue finding a permanent theater space, a goal that's still on its wish list. In June they'll be staging two Clive Barker plays in repertory, History of the Devil and Frankenstein in Love.

Ultimately, The Wide Open Beaver Festival is about inspiring laughter and hopefully reflection. Maybe they really don't have the right title for their festival, as it sounds like Sensurround wants their Beaver to build not a dam but a bridge between the sexes.

The Wide Open Beaver Festival plays March 27-30 at PushPush Theater, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3. 8 p.m., plus a midnight show Fri. $10. 404-524-0302. www.sensurroundstagings.com.??

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