The conceit behind "Little House on the Planet" would be familiar to anyone who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, or watching the Little House on the Prairie TV series. The "Planet" version stars Kay-c Allen as Laura, the country girl whose family has decided to resettle in an environment that's far more desolate than the banks of Plum Creek or the shores of Silver Lake. In this place the sky is pink, the ground is rocky, and a lowing space cow is the only form of nourishment. Laura's sister Mary (Kirsten Macauley), who was blinded by scarlet fever, scoffs as Laura describes the strange landscape, while a listless Mrs. Ingalls (Natasha Muse) sits indolently in her rocking chair, quietly wishing the family would return to Wisconsin. Only Pa (Evangeline Reilly) is happy with the new homestead. In his eagerness to start anew, he blithely ignores a Martian neighbor (Therese Garcia) who comes to scope out — and possibly root out — the Ingalls family.
Structured as an homage of sorts, "Little House" is one of about seventeen skits that the all-female comedy troupe Femikaze will perform at its Women's History Month showcase, slated to happen the last two weeks of March at Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley. The sketches, which vary in length from 45-second inserts to full-fledged narratives, include a whole panoply of relevant historical characters: Butterfly McQueen, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Gloria Steinem, J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison, and even a zombie Sojourner Truth. Founders Isa Hopkins and Kelly Anneken collaborated on most of the writing, albeit with the help of several cast members. The actors, all women, share equal stage time. The point, Anneken and Hopkins declare in no uncertain terms on their website, is to promulgate "the radical notion that women are funny."
"Radical" might be a point of contention, but Anneken says it's not a joke. Launching her standup career in the Bay Area a couple years ago, she quickly discovered the scene was a veritable bromosphere. While that doesn't mean outright hostility to female participants, it does mean that women comedians are routinely outnumbered. "It can be very lonely," Anneken said.
She met Hopkins on the standup circuit a little more than a year ago, and the two of them clicked instantly. Both had theater backgrounds, considered themselves unrepentant feminists, and consumed Sex in the City with a fervor that few other Bay Area comedians could comprehend. In fact, that was the impetus for their first sketch, called "Sex in the Cheney." It starred caricature versions of the four affluent New Yorkers who've become so iconic in pop culture — a shadowy vice president stood in for the elusive Mr. Big.
The acting group was born shortly thereafter, when Anneken and Hopkins enlisted a few other women to participate in Marga Gomez's "Comedy Brains!" showcase at The Marsh Theater in Berkeley. Over the past year, they posted Craigslist ads and recruited by word-of-mouth, ultimately amassing a group of ten women. Racially diverse and conspicuously heterogeneous, Femikaze has gone through a few different iterations to arrive at its current cast. The one constant is that everyone has a stage background. The founders hold auditions for all new recruits, usually requiring everyone to read a short monologue: "Dating and the Scientific Method with Deidre Darwin."
Women's issues are certainly a chief preoccupation for Femikaze, and the group tends to be unsparing in its social commentary. "Sex and Dick Cheney" was a fairly brutal takedown of the HBO TV show (Anneken dismissed it, in a recent email, as "a guy's idea of what women are like"); "Totalitarian Fitness" offered tips for the woman who wants to look like a sexy dictator. ("Do you wish you looked as good shirtless as Vladimir Putin does?" Anneken asked, gazing imperiously at her audience beneath a blond Suzanne Somers wig). But some of the pieces are send-ups. "Tree's Company," which stars Anneken and Hopkins in a triangular relationship with "some plant from Craigslist," is a good-humored satire of the old sitcom. While the writers feel no compunction about desecrating a couple characters in "Little House," they also show a certain reverence for the source material — at least, they've read enough Wilder to know all the plot points.
After "Comedy Brains!" fizzled out, Femikaze moved its operations to Berkeley's Subterranean Arthouse, where it now holds themed shows several times a year. The fall edition was devoted to Halloween; March is International Women's month; summer's appropriately douchey tagline is "A Femikaze Summer's Eve." Artist-friendly and economical, the venue has allowed these performers to try increasingly elaborate ideas, while hewing to their mission. Cast members say they'd eventually like to find a new home in Oakland, where most of them live. For now, though, they're content to colonize Mars. Figuratively speaking, that is.