At the beginning of Woman Come Down, the young heroine (Kirsten Broadbear) seems to be like any other realistic contemporary female character. She's unemployed, and her domineering mother (Karen Offereins) still bombards her with orders every day. She's bad at riding her bike (practically crashing it into the audience to demonstrate), so she walks everywhere. And though she's about to get a proposal from her perfectly decent boyfriend (Leer Relleum), she can't help but question whether that life is the best one. Just imagining it, she can't help but picture a slow march toward death -- or at least toward being like her sick grandmother.
But it's such details -- having to care for a sick grandmother -- that gradually reveal that she's familiar to us. Where does she live? On the edge of the woods. Her name? Red. The character with a velvet bow-tie she meets on the street who lures her away from her grandma's house? Wolf (Maro Guevara).
Woman Come Down is part of Ladies in Waiting, a trio of three short plays by No Nude Men, all about contemporary damsels in distress (loosely defined). Though only this first play, by Claire Rice, so explicitly draws on fairy tale constructs, each play relies to some extent on the fantastical to help illustrate its heroine's plight. But of the three plays, only Woman Come Down really succeeds.
In Night in Jail by Alison Luterman, a starlet of Lohan vintage (Tonya Narvaez) gets thrown into county lockup on a DUI charge, where she meets Marie Antoinette (also played by Broadbear, in period costume and silver makeup). But pointing out what the two characters have in common seems to be the sole intent of the drama. Never do the stakes get high enough to generate real dramatic tension.
And Oily Replies by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes fares even worse. You can vaguely tell it's about a detective (Relleum) trying to figure out why little explosions keep happening on an oil rig and why its workers keep losing body parts. But each new nonsense sentence is so unrelated to the previous that the play is extremely difficult to follow. Some recurring lines about dandruff and bellybuttons bring cheap laughs, but in the end even a spirited ensemble can't save this from amounting to little more than a stream of non sequiturs.
Woman Come Down, on the other hand, is also helped by the inventive direction of Stuart Bousel (Night in Jail is directed by Sara Judge, while Oily Replies is directed by Claire Rice). On a shoestring budget, he helps create the magic that a fairytale requires: a ladder that becomes a tower, a prop that appears just when it's needed, and even the long hair of Rapunzel (Theresa Miller), who, in a poignant debate with Red, gets to ask the play's central question: "Am I still free if I make the choice to stay?"
While Woman Come Down doesn't shy away from big philosophical issues, it's a simpler choice that most resonates: Red's desire not to marry is never fully explained, as though -- shocker! -- it didn't have to be. Playwright Rice took it for granted -- a happy sign that norms might really be changing.
Ladies in Waiting continues through Saturday (Dec. 17) at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy St. (at Taylor), S.F. Admission is $10-$20.