A Lesbian in the Pantry
reviewed by Leonard Jacobs for Backstage.com - September 2005
Reprinted from Backstage.com. Original posting.
Presented by the Cabinet Theatre, Fashionatrix, and Ladybird Productions as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the Players Theatre, 115 Macdougal St., NYC, Aug. 24-28.
Amusing title. But what is "A Lesbian in the Pantry" about?
It's about a lesbian in the pantry. Written by Joe Latessa and directed by Spike Kunetz, both veterans of Chicago's Second City, the play features Lucy (Shannon Strodel), an adorably dumpy eight-year-old in pigtails and a Catholic school uniform, and her mother (Kristen Freilich), matronly and perky in a polka-dotted '50s dress and bouffant hair. Her mother makes dinner -- pasta one night, steak the next -- and asks Lucy to fetch condiments from the pantry. Each time, Lucy disappears.
What makes "Lesbian" one of the best Fringe productions in years is that, improbably, it's a chamber opera that aspires to tell no more than the story implied in the title. Lucy's mother doesn't believe her daughter's claim that there is a lesbian in the pantry and traumatizes Lucy sufficiently that she retreats into her room for months, reading only scripture. Finally, Lucy's mother does find a lesbian (Hedy Beinert) in the pantry -- dead of starvation -- and all this in song. Curtain.
Among other things, "A Lesbian in the Pantry" shows that not all theatre (musical or otherwise) requires the epic gloss of a Victor Hugo novel to enrapture its audience. Latessa's effusive and often beautiful score aside, his story is fundamentally about a mother and daughter unable to communicate. Yet it is elastic enough that audiences can interpret the tale as they wish. Is Lucy gay? Well, she's only eight. Is the lesbian a metaphor? A sad one, if so. Is it a goof? You decide, Latessa says -- I'm just telling a story.
And that allows the actors to serve the material magnificently, especially Freilich. The piece is spare, just 50 minutes, and she has invested each moment -- truly, literally each line -- with concrete choices that are correct for her character and unerringly, almost mischievously funny. Freilich's charisma, coupled with Strodel's brooding intensity and Beinert's skill at playing dead, makes this unlikely work a wonderwork.