Divine Divas

An Exit Theatre festival pays tribute to the classic prima donnas of song

VH1 has made a mockery of the word "diva." To be fair, its Divas Live program has featured legitimate prima donnas like Aretha, Diana, and Cher, but it has also included lightweights such as Nelly Furtado, the Dixie Chicks, and Shakira. Part of the problem could be the term's nebulous definition: It first appeared in Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 opera Norma in reference to a famous female singer; since then, it has evolved to include Cher's description of "singing bitches that you can't get along with." Some may think that any youthful chanteuse with tight abs and a boob job who thinks she can carry a tune is entitled to said status, but that's not so. Ideally a diva should have larger-than-life presence, longevity, and single-name international recognition. (Madonna, Barbra, and Liza are examples.) Regardless of your stance on the ongoing controversy over the meaning of the term, DIVAfest -- a two-week celebration of plays, solos, cabarets, and artwork -- should do much to clear up the confusion.

DIVAfest pays tribute to, among other women, historic prima donnas. One was dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, highlighted in playwright Kerry Reid's The Last of the Red-Hot Dadas. The event also features classic feminist works, like Clare Boothe Luce's farce The Women, presented in a staged reading starring the collected performers of the festival plus surprise guests. Original works include Madam Noir's Fandango, a western and sci-fi vaudeville show performed by the Carnival of Chaos, a band of loony mischief-makers who combine song, dance, circus arts, and comedy.

Sean Owens is a diva, although he circumvents the standard requirement of having been born female. His one-man musical revue, Girlesque, showcases the powerful female influences who have shaped his life. Donning a different wig and breaking into a new song for each of his finely crafted heroines, he embodies them to the hilt, whether he's playing a 9-foot nun, his loving mother, his sassy Aunt Fanny, or the inimitable Carol Channing.

There'll be  no shortage of estrogen at the Exit 
Theatre's DIVAfest.
There'll be no shortage of estrogen at the Exit Theatre's DIVAfest.


Thursday through Saturday, May 16-18 and 23-25, with a special benefit reading of The Women on Monday, May 20

Individual admission is $10-20, festival passes are $55


ww w.sffringe.org

Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), S.F.

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Like a classic diva, performance artist and classically trained vocalist Amy X Neuburg has fashioned a career out of breaking the rules. Frequently compared to Laurie Anderson and Frank Zappa, Neuburg studied with such avant-garde luminaries as Pauline Oliveros and David Rosenboom before fronting her most recognized band, Amy X Neuburg & Men. Backed by a formidable posse of male virtuosos, Neuburg blends electronic cabaret and art rock played on high-tech instruments like drum pads, MIDI mallet, and a Chapman Stick (a distant cousin to the guitar). Neuburg's outlandish antics and avant-garde predilections sometimes get more ink than her operatic voice, but at the DIVAfest, she sings Songs About Life & Death & Love & Insects sans Men, so she should get all the attention -- as befits a proper diva.

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