Ladies First

The Women's Theatre Project gives voice to seldom-heard aspects of the female character

Often in show biz, men enjoy the juicier roles. Women serve as love interests, sidekicks, or second bananas. When they do get center stage, women are all too frequently asked to play wild, over-the-top stereotypes: the virtuous blonde, the bitchy brunette, the seductive siren.

At least, that's the opinion fueling the Women's Theater Project, a fledgling, all-female, Fort Lauderdale-based group working to play theatrical catch-up. The women in the group are definitely not anti-man, they say. They simply want to celebrate women -- "the delicious qualities,'' says artistic director Genie Croft, including such fun stuff as sexuality, selfishness, and vindictiveness.

Attracting professional actresses from throughout South Florida who perform without pay, the group offers free staged readings at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Scripts in hand, its members set up in a banquet room, acting out monologues and scenes from an array of female-centric material. And they're not shy. They perform dialogue that ranges from classic theater pieces to sexy chit-chat among gal pals. The readings draw dozens of fans, including men.

Croft sifts through all sorts of scripts seeking an array of monologues and scenes for each performance. Scenes from previous readings included women at a baby shower and socialites at a nail salon. The show on August 20, Naked Women Fully Clothed, is also performed as a staged reading, in which the actresses work with scripts in hand, on platforms equipped with barstools. After each show, the spectators are invited to stay and offer their opinions in an informal discussion with the cast and crew.

Merry Jo Pitasi of Hollywood, president of the organization, is delighted with the response. Not only are the fans enthusiastic, she says, but the theater group is attracting talented performers who usually are paid for their work. The lure of playing something other than those "seductive siren" roles seems to be succeeding.

Pitasi wants to continue doing shows at various locations in South Florida and, if finances allow, produce more expensive, full-length productions.

For now, she says, the crowd is enjoying the freshness of the staged readings, which are performed without such accouterments as sets, costumes, and fancy lighting.

"It's not something that's sort of cooked around in a soufflé pot for weeks,'' Pitasi says. "It takes the best actors to perform in staged readings. They have to be at the top of their game to be able to pull it off and make it look effortless."

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Patti Roth