- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

“Betty Rules” throws a bright estrogen halo over Theater J.

This girl-powered tribute to 20 years of harmony, discord and uncategorizable independent music — is the rock band Betty a cappella rock, spoken word, techno or an amalgam of all three? — will re-energize Washingtonians who remember the lively punk/new wave musical scene of the 1980s.

It also stands on its own as an evening of funny, pun-filled songs and frank insights into what it’s like to be a girl band on the road.

The trio — Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff and Elizabeth Ziff — began collaborating in 2000 with Michael Greif, director of “Rent,” on an autobiographical theatrical piece with music that would be part memoir, part showcase filled with two decades of Betty’s idiosyncratically gorgeous harmonies and compositions. (Think the Andrews Sisters on Red Bull, or the Go-Gos after taking in a marathon performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Michigan Womyn Festival.) The show was a hit, running off-Broadway for seven months before embarking on a tour.

Now, for a month, Betty is back where it all began. The Ziff sisters jammed in their father’s basement in Fairfax and note during a segment in this funky-beat, grin-inducing show that their dad would flick the lights on and off when it was time to stop.

The Ziff sisters found bass player Alyson Palmer after putting out a call to the newly relocated WHFS-FM, the District’s once-mighty alternative rock station, which moved to Baltimore last month.

Many of the local places mentioned in “Betty Rules” are gone: the recently-departed WHFS, DC Space, the original 9:30 Club on F Street NW, the Bayou, the Crazy Horse saloon in Georgetown. Yet Betty has survived 20 years together, even indulging in “band group therapy,” a hilarious bit in the show in which the three fuss and feud, each clamoring to take turns with the “talking stick” — a familiar staple to those in group therapy, who pass the stick around to obtain permission to speak.

The two Misses Ziff and Miss Palmer have plenty to say. Since its beginning in 1985, Betty has defied predictable musical genres, remaining true to its distinctive, daredevilish style. The group never conformed to the stereotype of girl-bandom — or any kind of pop-music rules, for that matter.

Betty was always a quirky hybrid of snaky rock beats, exquisite harmonies and smart-alecky lyrics that dealt with procrastination, infidelity, ticking biological clocks, food issues and male groupies. The women proudly used the F-word (feminism) as well as the L-word before it became fashionable.

Though it never became the flavor of the month, Betty has always had a cult following, and the group’s music has shown up on HBO, Comedy Central, the Food Network, MTV, Nickelodeon and numerous commercials. In one scene, titled “Betty Pays the Bills,” the group sings zealously about the food court at Tyson’s Corner Center.

“Betty Rules,” directed at Theater J by Sarah Bittenbender, takes audiences through the land mines and triumphs of being a female rock band during the new-wave 1980s all the way up through the hip-hop era.

“I can’t believe I spent all these years sleeping my way to the middle,” cracks Amy Ziff, the wisecracking, flamboyant clown of the group. She’s the one with all the crazy voices and the manic energy, while her sister Elizabeth is more the cool, edgy guitar chick, tense and intense. In the middle — literally and figuratively — is Miss Palmer, possessing supermodel height and playing her bass with laid-back glee.

Betty has two men in the band, drummer and percussionist Mino Gori and guitarist Tony Salvatore, who preside over the show on a platform at the back of the set. The men provide meaty beats and guitar riffs, but the women are front and center, the way it should be.

***

WHAT: “Betty Rules,” written and performed by Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff and Elizabeth Ziff

WHERE: Theater J, Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: Evening performances are at 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 on Saturdays. Sunday performances are at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Through April 3.

TICKETS: $10 to $36

PHONE: 800/494-8497

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