(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Mix the first episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with 70s science fiction films Zardoz and The Apple, add in a dash of Judd Apatow humor, and you’ve got Denim Doves, a new collaboratively devised theater piece written by Adrienne Dawes and created with Salvage Vanguard Theater.
Denim Doves is a semi-immersive piece of theater, set in a dystopian future, that (at times) acknowledges the audience’s presence, bringing us into the world of the play. That world, though, is a small one – a bunker housing six women, all of whom are wives to a man known only as “Penis,” as well as the son of the oldest wife. Together, these eight people form a highly dysfunctional family that is ostensibly trying to continue their genetic line through active, ritualistic attempts at pregnancy.
Dawes’ script attempts to deal with some weighty issues, ranging from the subjugation of female desire through to misogynistic theocratic beliefs and the societal shame put upon women concerning their own biology. These topics gain force as the play goes on, but they are frequently (especially early on) covered with a veneer of humor that often veers towards the sophomoric, with a particular affinity for penis jokes.
The cast of Denim Doves are dynamic and engaging, bringing definable personalities to these characters who are frequently denied even their own names (in the program, for example, the cast are simply listed alphabetically, without assigning characters to them). They are at their best when dealing with clear, identifiable goals and emotions, though the future dystopian comedy of the play sometimes gets in the way of understanding those motivations.
Denim Doves soars highest in its moments of direct theatrical presentation, utilizing a simple system of bells to create often-heartbreaking musical interludes that show how deeply rooted the pain of these women actually is.
Co-directors Florinda Bryant and Jenny Larson (who are also in the cast) create some memorable stage pictures that silently speak volumes about the emotions at the heart of this play.
Though at times confusing (perhaps deliberately) and relying a bit too much on lowbrow humor, Denim Doves is ultimately a feminist statement about the hidden power and strength of women in even the most absurd and desultory of circumstances.
“Denim Doves” continues through Feb. 13 at Salvage Vanguard Theater. salvagevanguard.org