Phallic Four

Anyone with a ten-year-old girl at home will immediately recognize Hysteric Studs by Charlotte Mann. The British import, on stage at Theater LaB, is a silly, rowdy, testosterone-laden version of the equally silly Spice Girls movie Spice World.

Tessa Walker, who directed the play's London premiere, put together a handsome and eclectic Houston cast. She has also loaded her actors with the sort of energy and head-spinning speed most of us can get only from illicit activity. Performers practically reel across the tiny Theater LaB stage as they celebrate pop culture and all its inane and often ludicrous icons.

Everything starts with Maggie (Anne Quackenbush), a miniskirted music manager from hell, who believes that "women are conditioned to beg for cock as soon" as they can dress like Cinderella. With that in mind, she holds auditions for her moneymaking notion of the decade. Maggie's hot-flash idea is an all-male musical group. Her four sexy, singing, gyrating men will bear the pointedly phallic appellation En Garde. As she sees it, these guys will strut their stuff and wiggle their brawny back sides into the dreams of every pubescent girl who owns a radio and television. And the money will, of course, roll in.

Every sort of oddball act in the country shows up to audition, including drag queen Ade (Matt Joseph), who argues that he will be able to speak to all those "teenage girls hot in the grips of penis envy." The flaky but big-hearted Jack (Chad Brannon) stands in a blinding beam of light as he auditions and confesses that he's in search of his inner self, while the biggest claim to fame for Spenser (Adrian Porter) is that he's got "a red toothbrush." Somehow, these three -- and the beautiful Lee (Peter Marr) whose talent has something to do with skintight britches -- become the singing sensation of the year.

This odd, fascinating play is helped along by a Theater LaB production which is as tight as the jeans worn by En Garde. Scenes whip past the audience as a series of TV-sized snatches of quick dialogue. Characters and moments are created on a bare, black stage. Any set would get in the way of the imaginative warp-speed telling of this story as it flashes back and forth across time and space and from character to character.

The bizarre characters often talk directly to the audience, gossiping or revealing their inner secrets. Brannon's Jack is the strangest of the group. He becomes so deeply identified with his En Garde persona that he proudly announces his image "sold the most Christmas cards." He's dressed as a reindeer with antlers. He and Spenser become buddies in search of some sort of Zen high. Caught up in his fame, Spenser announces, "I am history; I don't need to make it." These odd pronouncements make this play a wonderfully iconoclastic celebration of pop culture.

The En Garde singers are also double-cast as dimwitted girl fans or loving, starstruck parents. And the actors create their various characters with astonishing efficiency. Porter becomes an adoring adolescent girl with a simple flip of his wrists and a pair of plastic barrettes pinned in his hair. The studly Marr metamorphoses into a stalking female fan from hell when he crosses his legs and screws up his lips into the prettiest pout ever.

These are pop culture cliches on steroids. But as obvious as the cliches are, Mann finds a charming way of undermining them and surprising the audience.

Ironically, Joseph's drag queen wannabe is the only married singer, and he wants desperately to have a child. When he discovers that he's sterile and that his tailless sperm won't budge, he declares that he's got "the mutant sperm of a drag queen, refusing to go anywhere without being properly dressed." And woe be to Ade, who finally reveals his marriage to all the adoring fans.

En Garde begins to unravel. The group can't stay inside the TV-sized box that Maggie and the fans have created for them. Eventually, each member moves on and becomes the person he was meant to be before being blinded by the light of fame. Everyone except Maggie, who announces over and over, "I love a cliche because that's what I am." If all cliches were as much fun as Hysteric Studs, we'd never get bored by them.

Hysteric Studs runs through March 27 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $18-$20.


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