Pulp at Stray Cat Theatre puts the sass of dyke-y dimestore novels on stage

I practically forgot where I was the other night (I was at Stray Cat Theatre, watching their production of Pulp) once the play commenced and Johanna Carlisle got busy playing a Sapphic saloon owner named Vivian Blaine. Carlisle always shines like a beacon, even when she's appearing in crap, which Patricia Kane's charming one-act certainly is not.

In Pulp, Carlisle is a riled-up romantic who channels Peggy Lee when she's singing (which she does beautifully) and Marie Dressler when she's pissed (which she finally is, in the penultimate scene in which she transforms herself into a pop-eyed Bernhardt, glorious in a colossal burst of musical anger).

Carlisle's grand performance elevates an already fine script that celebrates and gently ribs the lesbian pulp fiction of the '50s and '60s. Kane has a keen sense of camp and a historian's insight into what was so delightfully wrong about this literary sub-genre. That she manages to craft an entirely original story (about a group of lovelorn lesbians working in a "ladies' club" in the '50s) that plays as though she lifted it wholesale from a dyke-y dimestore novel proves her mettle, and that the laughs are pointed straight at the audience like a two-headed dildo is not only amusing but unfortunately necessary, since lesbians will flock to Kane's play, while it's gay men who tend to have a thing for camp. The audience with whom I watched Pulp proved this: Although there were dozens of laugh-worthy lines, the loudest guffaws came in response to a crack about lesbians moving in together after knowing one another only two days — truly the oldest lesbian joke on record.

The audience was helped in finding its laughs by director Ron May, who kept the pace quick and efficient, and by musical director Terre Steed, without whom this would have been half a play. His musical cues provided droll punch lines to already amusing text, and his piano accompaniment on each of the musical numbers was expert.

I have a lesbian crush on Katie Harroff, who, according to her playbill bio, is finishing up an MFA in performance at ASU. I hope Ms. Harroff plans to apply that degree on local stages, which desperately need her megawatt smile and beguiling way with a monologue. Anyone who can repeat the line "I'm a lesbian, pure and simple; I make no bones about it" over and over again without annoying me (and an audience full of kd lang clones!) has a rare talent. So, too, has Tracy Payne, an actress of Amazonian proportions and comic talent who brought the pulp novel term "hardboiled" right to life.

Watching these dames march back and forth across David J. Castellano's cozy speakeasy, crooning and cat-fighting and enacting the trashy nonsense found in 10-cent paperbacks of yesteryear, made me want to head to eBay to buy a couple. The feeling passed, and I've settled instead for looking forward to what Stray Cat will bring us next season.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela