May Andrales' "No One's Winning" ponders a woman's role in a post-feminist society. 

"Winning" Isn't Everything

"N.O.W.: No One's Winning"
Fieldens Cabaret Theater
8 p.m., Thursday - Saturday
Through June 26

In her original work, "N.O.W.: No One's Winning" presented by the Richmond Performing Arts Collective, playwright/director May Adrales ponders what it means to be a woman in our post-feminist society. This is a big question and Adrales has a lot of insightful things to say about it. In moments during the sketches that make up its first act, "N.O.W." brilliantly explores the struggles women face and signals the arrival of a talented new dramatic voice.

Unfortunately, this voice spends a fair amount of time shouting when a whisper would be more effective. The second act abandons the first act's more intimate exploration of women's issues, and attempts to answer the big question with big answers. Four female archetypes — the doting mother, the strident feminist, the cutthroat executive and the icy socialite — struggle over a formless dummy, each trying to imprint her identity on it. The arguments are articulate, but the positions are too simple, the answers too pat. In the battle between these stereotypes, Adrales seems to be saying that the wealth of choices makes it more difficult to be a woman today. But each archetype is so broadly and unattractively defined that none of them ends up being a realistic choice, a depressing and superficial resolution given the many insightful messages offered earlier.

Luckily, where Adrales the playwright stumbles, the director succeeds. She confidently leads the four resourceful actresses who make up her cast through scenes that run the gamut from earnestly realistic to breezily farcical. Each performer gets her chance in the spotlight.

Some of the more emotional moments are handled by Niabi Caldwell. Her slow-burning anger and wrenching sorrow make a scene called "It" a show-stopper. She can be restrained as well, playing a composed businesslike job interviewer to Katherine Kelly's fidgety interviewee in the sketch "Want Ads." Kelly's best role is as the corporate ladder-climber in the second act. She brings a sly intelligence to the character, then spices her up with a palpable sensuality.

Kathleen Legault performs the evening's only dance piece, "The Birth of Eve." The beautiful precision of her movements effectively evokes activities that range from primping before a mirror to throwing up after eating. Legault also brings grace to her acting, adding polish to the broadly comic "Decorating to Please Him." Rounding out the cast is Betzi Hekman, who wins the prize for demonstrating the greatest range in the shortest period of time. In the two-minute monologue "I Went to the Gym," Hekman's face registers elation and agony and numerous gradations of emotion in between.

The technical aspects of the production are nondescript, the performers spending much of the evening clad simply in utilitarian black with the stage mostly bare. The attractions here are the performances and the ideas. "N.O.W." suffers in comparison to the more nuanced "Parallel Lives," the last show to play at Fieldens Theater. But while her play isn't an unconditional success, Adrales shows the makings of a winner. I look forward to hearing the answers to the next big question she decides to

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