It's been a decade since the final curtain fell, but I'll never forget the production of Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom staged by a small, short-lived union of artists called Nice Boys From Good Families, under the direction of Brian Mott. It was produced at the then un-air-conditioned Marshall Arts Gallery in the middle of August. The unrelenting humidity made the show a steam bath, the capacity crowd, packed in like cord wood, and the blazing stage lights only made things worse. Anyone interested in seeing the show's stars, Kevin Jones and Ann Marie Hall, in a state of undress only had to pass by the gallery's garage doors, which were up, allowing the actors to get a little fresh, if still stifling, air between quick changes. Miserable doesn't begin to describe the conditions under which this determined troupe of actors was working. And if the hellish location didn't clue observers into the inspired poverty that brought VLOS into being, the set, a nickel-and-dime affair amounting to little more than some lushly painted backdrops hung like shower curtains on a bare stage, drove the point home in no uncertain terms.
But the capacity crowds came night after putrid night. And in the middle of a miserable August, they laughed until tears of joy mingled with the torrents of sweat pouring down their faces. It was, as DIY performance goes, an object of near perfection. I rhapsodize about these bygones for one reason only: Mott, who was once able to release the full force of Busch's campy brilliance against nearly impossible odds, has not been able to repeat the magic working under the aegis of Memphis' only professional theater, Playhouse on the Square. This past Friday night the wonderfully climate-controlled Circuit Playhouse was nearly empty, and laughs were few and far between. And while some of the blame may rest with questionable choices made by Mott and his actors, I suspect the working conditions made all the difference. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was produced by a passionate group trying to make the absolute most they could out of nothing. The Lady in Question looks like a show that was schlocked together by professional corner-cutters looking to fabricate a relatively complex set as cheaply as possible. Any failings of the cast (and there are a few) are dwarfed by a looming, less than versatile, overwhelmingly tan set that might as well have Waiting for Guffman stenciled on it in big red letters.
Architect and designer Michael Walker seldom misses. In fact, he's responsible for the most stunning designs to ever appear on a Memphis stage. (Far East, anyone?) But even conceptually, the design for The Lady in Question fails. The immovable unit set, a dollhouse recreation of a German manorhouse, can't service a play that needs to move seamlessly and cinematically from a Bavarian train station to a manor to some creepy catacombs to the Swiss Alps. The serviceable but uninspired lighting design does nothing to aid with clunky awkward transitions or to define changes in location. The unbearably tan monstrosity neither provides an appropriate counterpoint for Busch's colorful characters nor does it reflect the silver and black grandeur of the classic movies The Lady in Question so meticulously mimics. Its bland seriousness, unreflective of the play's sources and style, casts a pall over the audience and obscures the frothy confection that is The Lady in Question. Given Walker's track record, something must have gone terribly wrong.
The Lady in Question apes the Nazi-laden backlot thrillers of the 1940s so closely that, at first, it's hard to know if you are watching a spoof of an old movie or just an old movie adapted to the stage. It tells the story of Gertrude Garnet, a onetime honky-tonk queen turned classical diva, on tour in Europe during the onset of WWII. The self-interested Garnet is, against both her will and her nature, drawn into a plot to free an American hostage from a Nazi prison. In the original production, Charles Busch put on the drag to play Garnet, and while it is not specifically a drag role, this no doubt helped the audience leap into parody mode. At Circuit, with the inestimably talented Mary Buchignani, a bona fide female, as Garnet, the spell takes longer to cast. And in this kind of comedy, time is of the essence.
Buchignani is a known commodity as a comic and character actress. Seldom does she get to play the glamour girl, however, and you have to wonder if the actress is totally comfortable wearing the feathers and furs. Often she seems to be acting in quotation marks -- "can't you see how grand I am?"-- and not in a way that speaks to the character's undeniable pretensions. She has no idea how truly fab she is, and in this role that's a fatal flaw. Another known commodity, Jo Lynne Palmer, does some of her best work here and some of her worst. Sure, her accent drifts from Bavaria to Transylvania to Jackson, Mississippi, all in the span of a diphthong, but as both a stern German battle-ax and a flaky American actress, she hits all the right notes. Alas, Palmer has been given the show's slapstick moments, and within the great all-encompassing tanness of it all, the slapstick stands out as forced and uncomfortable. Cort Winsett has all the rakish charm and angular mannishness to make him the ideal noir hero, and in a sexually deviant role partially inspired by the film The Bad Seed, Carol Wolder is both hysterical and terrifying.
Mott and Co. play the whimsical Lady in Question straight. Good for them. But there's a fine line between straight and bland, and in this case, the set has made all the difference. n
Through August 31st.