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Feminism in Pumps

Spike Heelsprobes the sexist underbelly of the student-mentor relationship à la Pygmalion

"Fuck" is a deliciously lush word. Just listen to the opening sequence of Theresa Rebeck's Spike Heels at Actors Theatre of Houston if you need any persuading. The house lights dim, and out of the darkness comes a smooth voice that waxes long on the astonishing versatility of that good-old, gutsy Anglo-Saxon word: It can operate as a transitive verb, as in "John fucked Shirley"; as an intransitive verb, as in "Shirley fucked"; an adjective, "John's doing all the fucking work"; an adverb, "Shirley talks too fucking much." It can even perform a multitude of complex grammatical functions within one ripe sentence: "Fuck the fucking fuckers!" This lascivious lesson in language, accompanied by twinkling notes that sound like Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, catapults Rebeck's Pygmalion-style story into motion, sending its four characters straight down into the swampy muck of class conflict, gender politics and good old-fashioned lust.

Georgie (Jill Giles), a tart, angry, foul-mouthed secretary from the wrong side of the tracks, has captured the eye of her uptight neighbor Andrew (Terry Jones), an erudite academician. How these two, who come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, wind up living in the same building is never explained, but they have become quite close, in a mentor-student sort of way. Andrew wants to save Georgie from the mire of the underclass. To that end, he gives her lots of high-handed advice, along with a stack of fancy books to read, including The Iliad, which she likens to a Sidney Sheldon novel. Andrew has also landed her an upwardly mobile job at his friend's law office.

Of course, the good professor's well intended though condescending lessons are nothing compared to the kick-in-the-teeth education he's about to get from Georgie. One night after work she marches into his apartment wearing red spike heels and a tight blue suit shouting about work. "Fuck that shit! Just fuck it!" she yells, flinging her shoes across the room. Andrew wants to make it all better by rubbing her feet and reminding her what an "elegant and sophisticated language" English is. But that won't soothe the savage in Georgie's heart.

Oily attorney Edward (Foster Davis) seeks an oral deposition from the tart, uneducated Georgie (Jill Giles).
Actors Theatre of Houston
Oily attorney Edward (Foster Davis) seeks an oral deposition from the tart, uneducated Georgie (Jill Giles).

Turns out Andrew's high-class lawyer is a lowlife. In a late-night "conference," he propositions the secretary, then scoffs at her when she says no. Now it's Andrew's turn to rage. But he's reduced to blathering something about Hegel and Thomas Hardy and "historical repetition." Without thinking, he reveals his icky inner self, saying that Georgie is nothing more than a member of the victimized underclass.

Georgie is, naturally, the only one who's truly self-aware. At least she knows enough about her own heart to realize that she's in love with Andrew, and that she has been trying to be the perfect modern-day Eliza Doolittle in hopes that he will love her back. "Christ, Andrew, I'm in love with you," she says, simply enough. And oh, my, yes! He wants her. He feels a physical and emotional pull inside every time she gets close, then reasons that there's nothing but a social "abyss" between them that would be "a nightmare to try and negotiate." Besides, he's involved with another woman, Lydia (Sara Gaston), who's rich and powerful -- and from the right side of the tracks.

Most of all, though, Andrew believes himself to be Georgie's "teacher" and thus can't bring himself to admit to any carnal desires for the smoky, street-smart woman. Not so for his best friend, the lawyer extraordinaire Edward (Foster Davis). Davis's low-down, blond and rakishly sexy Edward is one of the best reasons to see this wonderfully successful show. Grinning like the devil himself, he is the sort of wickedly smart scum-bucket lawyer everyone hates, until they need an attorney. Rich, well-dressed and always on the make, Edward makes no bones about his lack of moral character. "If I'm going to defend criminals, I want them to have lots and lots of money," he says, snickering at his own black heart. As good as he is, he meets his match in Georgie, who has seen too much bad behavior to be seduced by this charlatan's slick ways.

Slowly the power shifts. Even though Georgie is a "dime a dozen," as Andrew says, she finds a way to take down these educated men. Fully aware of her place as a woman -- "I'm in the receiver's position," she says to the men; "I do whatever you guys tell me to do, whether it's reading books or fucking" -- Georgie learns how to carve out her own boundaries in this male-ruled world. And she teaches Lydia a thing or two along the way.

This funny, feminist track is handled with a great deal of aplomb by director Brandon Smith, who encourages some truly lovely performances from his actors. The witty script swiftly moves through some sticky territory, and it arrives at an altogether strange ending, the sort of perplexing paradox that should be teased out over a glass of wine with a good friend after the final curtain falls.

Spike Heels runs through April 22 at Actors Theatre of Houston, 2506 South Boulevard, (713)529-6606. $10-$14.

 
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