Grope springs eternal

Even at an orgy, somebody has to be in charge. Friday night's AntiBabe TV extreme-fashion performance at Theatre Downtown began with a stern lecture from designer/founder Jodi Thomas, who let it be known in no uncertain terms that the evening's extravaganza of sexually-charged shock theatrics would be a tightly run ship.

There would be no smoking, we were admonished; if we saw the actors on stage lighting up, we were not to follow suit. Making "as much noise as possible" would be the only adequate tribute to the cast and crew. Also, the theater would be locked throughout the first act ... so if we had to "pee," we had better do it right away.

Is this the "discipline" portion of the evening? I wondered.

Thomas was in her element. Her AntiBabe posse has been intimidating Orlando audiences for three years, but this show (the kickoff of a two-night engagement) was its first of 1999. When the lights dimmed, old and new fans alike got what they had waited for: an over-the-top, under-the-table revue in which a troupe of semiclad club kids ran through the Kama Sutra while modeling Thomas's newest kink-wear.

They fondled each other. They cross-dressed. They simulated intercourse of every stripe, changing partners with a regularity that would have made Warren Beatty jealous. When sex alone wouldn't do, they acted out a roster of violent fantasies that included a few feigned suicides, a couple of murders and a catfight or two. A team effort, to be sure; just don't expect it to be replicated on "The McLaughlin Group."

Occasionally, they even stood still long enough to show off the apparel, moderately risque designs that relied on copious use of vinyl, animal prints and nipple tape. Nothing you'd wear to a cotillion, but nothing that would get you thrown out of The Club at Firestone, either.

Obscene and not heard

Visual assault was the idea here, and it almost didn't matter that pounding techno and punk hits all but drowned out the scripted bits. More frustrating were the videotaped segments used to keep us amused during scene changes. A lone TV monitor placed at center stage was cranked to maximum volume; through the fuzzy distortion, I think I caught one out of every eight words. So much for jokes about the actors going down on their lines.

Most of the audience appeared unperturbed. They howled with delight at a live spoof of the "Jenny Jones" program, a skit that degenerated into a family feud of a brawl almost as soon as it began. Thomas later told me that she herself had been shanghaied by Jones during an appearance on her show last year -- an onscreen ambush that involved the designer's mother as well as her AntiBabe brethren. No wonder they have issues with the woman.

Despite the rampant applause and laughter, nearly half the crowd did not return after Act 1. Maybe the night was growing too late: The program had gotten under way nearly an hour past its announced 11:30 p.m. start. A few patrons had been confused by the first act's 60-minute length, thanking co-director and co-producer John DiDonna for a fun time and then high-tailing it out the door before he could explain that it wasn't over yet.

Burlesque is more

The evening's highlight had already been seen, anyway. It was an old-fashioned chair dance -- the kind Madonna staged on the MTV Video Music Awards a few years back -- and it was a standout of choreography and sly attitude amid the surrounding histrionics. Nothing in Act II equaled it. Nor did Act II offer much more of Emily Harrold, whose comedic talents (honed as a member of the Poster Child sketch troupe) were underemployed throughout "AntiBabe TV." Harrold's best bit was a video vignette in which she tearfully admitted her clumsiness in the high heels that were de rigeur for her new gig. To their credit, the AntiBabes appear to know that what they're doing is essentially ridiculous. Whether or not they know how ridiculous it is -- or why -- is another matter entirely.

After the show, DiDonna downplayed any notions of contrivance. To hear him tell it, the company was a naughty-minded but ultimately innocent gathering of friends. "It has nothing to do with sex," he swore, sounding like man in contention for Bill Clinton's job.

As we talked, Shelly Richards -- a dancer with piercing eyes and white-streaked Lily Munster hair -- accepted the congratulations of her boyfriend. He hadn't brought roses in the time-honored theatrical fashion, but Richards didn't seem to mind as her beau interrupted our conversation by kissing her sloppily to convey his passionate best wishes.

"It's a social group," DiDonna pressed on, trying not to look embarrassed.

So I noticed.