Monday, May 18, 2015

"Oh No There's Men On The Land"

Oh No There’s Men On The Land
Karen S. Ripley
The Marsh Cabaret, Berkeley

As my husband and I settled into our seats and table in the intimate, cozy Cabaret of the Berkeley Marsh for the 5 p.m. show, we soon started to feel a bit uneasy as we realized that we were the only two men in a room of women, many of whom clearly knew each other and most of whom appeared to be possible warriors of past feminist and lesbian freedom-rights battles.  As the title of the show began to hit home (Oh No There’s Men On The Land), I began to imagine that we two males might soon become the butts of jokes and jeers since I was sure we stuck out in this sea of sisterhood.  While still pondering if we should duck next door to The Feisty Jew (where at least we would likely be among members of our tribe), the lights went down and an older, grandmother-like woman trudged to the stage.  What I noticed first was her face:  A huge smile of welcome and twinkling eyes of mischief nestled among furrows and puffed cheeks that spoke of a lifetime of adventures and stories.  In two minutes, we were laughing with gusto along with our fellow Baby Boomers, relishing and remembering as if we in fact belonged here … and of course, we did belong.

Karen Ripley’s solo Oh No There’s Men On the Land begins on the day Dr. King is assassinated.  That event somehow wakes up her teenaged self that it is time to come clean to her extended, Berkeley family. She takes us to her family living room where in 1968 she announces to the gathered clan, “Uh, I just wanted to tell you I’m gay.”  As she will during the entire show, she one-by-one becomes each of the others in that room that day, leaving us in stitches as she mimics their various reactions to her proclamation.  Where Ripley (as she calls herself) really hooks us while recalling her journey as a ‘baby dyke’ (her term) is that she paper-clips to the pages of her life story concurring events we all vividly remember, each accompanied by the appropriate Top 40 music of the day:  Nixon’s resignation, Elvis’ death, Harvey’s election, the first Chronicle headline of a mysterious disease killing scores of young men.  We are with her as we too recall where we were, whom we were with, and the music we were listening to as we accompany her on her travels of the late ‘60s to early ‘80s.  For this crowd, she further punctuates her story with iconic lesbian hangouts and bars (the Brick Hut, Ollie’s, Amelia’s) of the East Bay; and each mention brings howls, ‘yeses,’ and raised hands of appreciative applause.

Ripley’s stories are full of incredible characters right out of the best of yellowed, much-read paperbacks.  The one-eyed Cricket advises and regales Ripley with stories, as Ripley unexpectedly finds herself in the ‘70s driving a busload of feminine festival-goers through the woods and hills of Midwest wild lands.  Among others she brings in both caricature and love to the stage, we meet a wild, leather-wearing wooer; her half dozen co-owners of a greasy diner (all lesbians except for one dorky straight guy); and a sweet-singing partner of her two-person, traveling band.  Each tale brings loads of laughs and a genuine admiration for this woman before us who clearly helped write the passages of East Bay lesbian and feminist history just by being hard-working, persistent, daring, and -- of course -- talented in such diverse areas as dish-washing, drumming, and stand-up comedy.  Ripley coughs, snorts, chuckles, scratches, and stomps through story after story; and we are all like lap puppies, wanting more and more of her regaling and attention to the details of those days gone by we believe we now so well too remember (even if we don’t).

All too soon, this seventy-minute romp comes to an end, just as the AIDS demon appears.  In the most touching moment of the evening, Ripley describes peering through the stage curtains at a 1983 audience of too-thin, hollow-eyed, skin-blotched gay men just before walking out to entertain them with her one-liners and raunchy humor.  As she gasps in horror, we gasp in memory.  But as she boldly steps into the spotlight and starts doing what she does best, no matter the audience, we -- like surely those now-angels did over 30 years ago – bust a gut laughing and loving us some Ripley. 

Oh No There’s Men On the Land plays Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. through May 30 at the Marsh Cabaret in Berkeley.

Rating: 5 E’s

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