Chicks in a box

La MaMa makes room for a live lesbian soap's "box set."

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE YOURS? Jess Barbagallo likes extra cream.

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE YOURS? Jess Barbagallo likes extra cream. Photograph: Jonathan Slaff

In a lesbian-owned caf nestled in the Berkshire mountains, sassy butch Dire Owens gets caught giving oral pleasure to a woman behind the counter—by her girlfriend Lacey, an educator at sex-toy shop Progressive Pussies. "Happy fucking one-week anniversary," mutters Lacey as she storms off.

In a lesbian-owned caf nestled in the Berkshire mountains, sassy butch Dire Owens gets caught giving oral pleasure to a woman behind the counter—by her girlfriend Lacey, an educator at sex-toy shop Progressive Pussies. "Happy fucking one-week anniversary," mutters Lacey as she storms off.

So begins the opening scene of one of the biting episodes of Room for Cream, a theatrical serial about the many women who frequent the titular coffeehouse in fictional Sappho, Massachusetts. The first season premiered in early 2008 at La MaMa E.T.C., and its biweekly installments quickly became a cult hit, with each episode selling out sometimes weeks in advance. Before Room for Cream returns for its second season this February, the Dyke Division of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf will stage the first season in its entirety over three weekends beginning Thursday 22. That's 11 30-minute episodes of U-Haul romances, yearlong breakups, gender-identity crises, softball games and, of course, lesbian vampires.

"What can we do that's a little less performance artsy? What's not so precious?" director Brooke O'Harra says were the questions in her mind when she first dreamed up the show. Two-Headed Calf, the Obie-winning company she cofounded, is known for its avant-garde amalgamations of gender-bending Kabuki, punk rock and the classics. "Challenging, text-based and almost nostalgically interested in form...a throwback to the early Cunningham and Cage days," wrote TONY's Helen Shaw in 2007 about the company's aesthetic. But Room for Cream is nothing like anything Two-Headed Calf has done before.

Most productions take about two years to develop. Room for Cream took just two months, explains O'Harra over a quick light ale and a grilled cheese sandwich at a caf on the Bowery before rehearsal. The cute, crunchy director—who divides her time between New York and Western Massachusetts, where she teaches theater at Mount Holyoke—says the inspiration for her sapphic soap came out of her interest in serial dramas, particularly The Wire, Six Feet Under and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "Everyone knows how people attach to TV," she says. "Why not do something that people can use, something people can immediately latch on to?"

O'Harra wears many hats as the show's main writer, director and producer, but all hands of the Dyke Division are on deck to make the fun happen. Members Jess Barbagallo, Laryssa Husiak, Brendan Connelly and Laura Berlin Stinger, all of whom act in Room for Cream, are the show's writing team. Collaboration, explains O'Harra, is the key component to the production. Scripts are managed by multiple people. Blocking is negotiated by the entire cast, not just the director. Discussions around logistics for the show happen while speed walking through the East Village on their way to rehearsal, via harried group e-mails, or while grabbing a quick coffee or bite to eat between jobs. And it's all done for no money, just passion. "It's been my dream to write for a lesbian soap opera since I was a sophomore in college!" offers Barbagallo.

There are 11 main actors, but others come and go among different episodes, depending on their level of commitment and whether their character's been kidnapped or stricken ill or comes back from the dead. The diversity of the actors reflects the diversity of the audience, who are absorbed into the action by way of the set; the audience is seated at the faux cafe's tables, alongside the actors. While mainly (but not exclusively) queer, the cast varies in race and age, and attracts some of downtown theater's finest guest stars; Wallace Shawn, Taylor Mac, K8 Hardy and Faye Driscoll were among those who appeared during the first season. So far, Circus Amok ringmaster and famed bearded lady Jennifer Miller is on board for season two.

O'Harra admits to believing that "queers don't go to the theater." But she hoped that this genre, one that is closer to The L Word than a Lisa Kron production, could appeal to a queer audience. Instead of spinning off current TV representation of the lesbian scene—a high-fashion, high-femme world in West Hollywood—Room for Cream glances knowingly at lesbian culture and counterculture utilizing "the wheat-free, tofu-fed gentle humor of an Alison Bechdel comic strip." That's just what The L Word has been missing all along.

Room for Cream Season One: The Box Set premieres Thu 22 at 10pm at La MaMa E.T.C.