They lead with the oldest tropes in the drama playbook: the play-within-a-play, the “Let’s put on a show!” Not to mention the wolf at the door and the eloquent ghost. But in their new Lemon Girls or Art for the Artless, the 48-year-old Talking Band, a downtown institution known for combining lyrical language, music, movement, and visual imagery with a solidly progressive political sensibility, once again manages, using these hoary strategies, to transform a simple story into 90 minutes of delightful comic theater.
Founded by Ellen Maddow, Tina Shepard, and Paul Zimet, all spawn of Joseph Chaikin’s legendary Open Theater, the Talking Band proudly foregrounds mature actors. The entire cast of Lemon Girls is over 70. Zimet directs, and Maddow’s script lets us know that its five women have been friends since grammar school. They assemble regularly at a bustling downtown coffee shop (Anna Kiraly’s elegant set segues easily from its snug interior to the wide-open space of a local community center) where, one frigid day, an older gay man named Sid (veteran actor Jack Wetherall), wearing a color-block jacket, recruits them into a “performance art workshop.” They reject his offer but show up anyway—a good thing, since he needs the cash he’ll earn teaching it to avoid eviction from his basement abode.
They learn jazzy dances (Sean Donovan choreographs in Fosse mode), they sing Maddow’s funny songs and tell their own stories, they are visited by the ghost of their friend Fran (Tina Shepard), a recently deceased painter for whom they still reflexively buy coffee. They sing about dog shit and swear they no longer care what anyone else thinks: “If it feels good, I do it,” says Nivea (Patrena Murray). Maddow herself plays the cookbook writer Lorca, as well as several keyboards; Louise Smith, as Pinny, falls asleep and dreams of Sid morphing into a handsome prince and sweeping her away. Topo (Lizzie Olesker) relates a traumatic tale of how her work led her to intervene in a crisis in Ozone Park. All of these performers, each with many decades of award-winning professional experience, effectively portray the artless, crotchety elderly citizens who fill the streets of our city. Kiki Smith and Jill St. Coeur dress them perfectly to face several seasons.
In development since before the pandemic, Lemon Girls emerges into the light, just as many of us are beginning to do. “The world is a dark place,” intones wraith Fran. “These are dark times.” No kidding. But count on the Talking Band to guide us through them. ❖