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Call it broad comedy: two-woman variety show focuses on the female experience

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Who's bringing the Toni home-perm kit and the Tiger Beat magazines?

There's a pyjama party at the MTC Warehouse Theatre, and you're invited if you've ever worn a training bra, done battle with a pair of pantyhose, had a mishap with a maxi-pad, breast-fed a baby or sweltered through a hot flash.

Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women is a two-gal variety show that uses sketches, improv comedy, songs, video segments and audience participation to celebrate and send up women's experiences.

If you've got a Y chromosome, it's not that you're banned from these female follies, running Saturday to April 3. A few men do attend the show, which has been running non-stop in Denver for a year and a half.

But writer-performers Barbara Gehring, 40, and Linda Klein, 43, suggest ditching the guys and making a giddy girls' night out of Girls Only.

"Why would (men) want to come? It's such a girl thing," says Gehring by phone from Denver. "Would you want to go to a bachelorette party or a bridal shower? You wouldn't really want to crash a slumber party."

Husbands and boyfriends won't be pilloried between the pillow fights. "There's no man-bashing," says the actress.

"And if you're looking for sarcastic and edgy, this is not for you. It's not a mean girls' show... There's no angst to it. It's not The Vagina Monologues. It's all about having fun and laughing at ourselves."

Girls Only, produced by the Broadway-show division of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, has become a theatrical phenomenon in that city. It's starting to have productions in markets such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Charlotte, N.C., and the producers want to "franchise" it throughout the United States. It's been seen by more than 70,000 women and has grossed $2 million.

Its first full-scale Canadian run is in Winnipeg because Gehring, whose maiden name is Melnyk, grew up in East St. Paul and went to River East Collegiate. She majored in theatre and English at the University of Manitoba and acted in Black Hole Theatre productions.

While teaching English in Japan in her 20s, she fell for an American, Paul Gehring. The two married and settled in Denver, where they have two young children. He works in the computer field, while she acts and belongs to a comedy trio called A.C.E. (American, Canadian, Englishman).

She may have picked up an American accent, but Gehring says she's still a perogy-loving Manitoban. Her parents, siblings and extended family still live here. "Winnipeg is always in my heart," she says.

Girls Only dates back to 2004, when Gehring and fellow A.C.E. member Klein realized they both had diaries they'd kept from about age 10 to 15. They got together and read their secret confessions aloud. All the embarrassment and awkwardness of girlhood came flooding back, and they realized there was a potential show in their common experience of dorkiness.

"We were laughing so hard," Gehring recalls. "We were mortified."

One of Gehring's entries recounts how she gave a boy a Valentine card, and he gave it back. It's still tucked in the diary. "I saved it! It's so pathetic," she laughs.

After a one-off performance in 2004, the duo workshopped the show at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival in 2007. They have since reworked and expanded it from 55 minutes to about an hour and 45 minutes. One sketch spoofs the musical troupe Up With People with a sex-ed presentation by Up With Puberty.

Klein and Gehring play themselves and dip into their actual diaries. Gehring's "memory box" treasures are real. The set is modelled on her childhood bedroom, with her actual Shaun Cassidy and Holly Hobbie posters reproduced on the walls.

She says she'll read some diary entries for audiences here that she doesn't share in Denver because crowds don't "get" them -- maybe stuff about shopping in Grand Forks or wearing synthetic shoes that cracked in the cold.

The show is never exactly the same because parts of it are improvised and involve audience members. That's one reason Denver women keep coming back. Some have seen it 10 times. It has been a hit with sisterhoods such as the Red Hat Society.

"Women are sharers, and they're gatherers," says Gehring. "Women tell each other, and they want to bring the girls from their church, from their book club... .

"Linda and I wrote it thinking it was about us. What we realized is that it's about all these women who see it. When we read our diaries (in the show), everyone says, 'That was me! That was me!'

"We get women all the time telling us, 'I came in just annoyed at menopause, and I left saying wow, thank God I'm female.' People leave feeling like they just went to a girlhood reunion."

If Girls Only succeeds in its 20-show Winnipeg run, Gehring envisions a cross-Canada slumber-party tour.

"I see no signs of it stopping. Basically, we can run it anywhere there's women."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2010 D1

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