What do you get when you mix camp and tragedy? Why, "campedy" of course! To witness this most unlikely of theatrical genres, you’ll have to check out David Starkey’s new play Julianne Caesar, directed by James Duff, now playing at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. Starkey’s play is occasionally funny, but ultimately uneven, proving that camp and tragedy make for strange bedfellows.
The premise of Julianne Caesar is comical, if composed with monochromatic strokes of writing. The theater department of an all-female school (Connie Francis College) is about to put on its production of Julius Caesar. The theater department is populated by cliched dipsy California bimbos who walk around in heels and short skirts dropping the words "like" and "whatever" into their speech. The girls have their own set of backstage rivalries that mirror, to some extent, the on-stage doings of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Megan (Allison McAtee) is your typical blond valley girl who has been sleeping with the director Peter (James Andrew Walsh) and has snagged the lead role of Brutus. Rival Julianne (Janine Barris) feels that she is the better actress and predictably a jealous feud breaks out between the women. Rumors abound that the two girls were lovers in their freshman year, adding yet more "scandal" to the mix. Tensions rise and animosity builds to the first act conclusion where Julianne shoots Megan point blank during the opening night performance. Before they know it, the girls at college become sought out for major media attention.
Now reading this, you might think that the play might be quite a riot and indeed the premise has merit. Starkey, for that matter, isn’t a bad writer and does have a good ear for dialogue. Unfortunately, this show is plagued by the aforementioned "campedy" identity crisis, never firmly at ease in either the camp or tragedy genre. Though billed as a comedy (a black one at that), the play needs to be much funnier and more over-the-top.
Ultimately, the show is a satire, but doesn’t reach the shocking or excoriating ends that satire is predicated on. Instead, there are too many moments in which characters quote lines from Julius Caesar that only serve to down shift the play into low-key mode. The play tries to ride the comedy of the shallow too-long-in-sun ditzy girl, but it’s a joke that wears thin quite fast. Camp and satire are actually quite difficult genres to pull off with success (Charles Busch’s work in Psycho Beach Party comes to mind as a similar work that mixes camp and violence to a more satisfying degree), and Starkey’s play doesn’t quite make the grade.
One aspect that drags down the production is the show’s lack of a set to enhance what should be an over-the-top experience. Though the cast is smartly costumed by Erica Hanrahan in bright colors and wonderful high heeled shoes, the lack of a set (the action takes place on a black stage with black boxes for seats) makes the play’s proceedings feel too subdued.
The show’s cast is a strong bunch of actors, doing the best they can with Starkey’s script. Janine Barris as Julianne is an engaging lead, evoking something of a young Andie MacDowell or Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The tall and blond Allison McAtee as Megan has the valley girl look and attitude down pat, but her character, as drawn by Starkey, makes little impression. The rest of the large ten-person cast fills their roles suitably with two notable mentions. Whitney Adams as Larissa the dramaturg is wonderfully nerdy and brainy and is a welcome relief to the other "bimbo" characters on stage. Also worth mentioning is the hilariously droll Meghan Love as Amanda, one of the students in the Connie Francis Theatre Department. Love takes what would normally be a throw-away role and milks it for some of the funniest line readings of the evening.
Starkey’s play trudges along to its conclusion with few surprises. No secrets are revealed and like all good plays, the "villain" gets her comeuppance. This play seems to signal that summer is just around the corner. Like the multiple teenage comedies that will no doubt litter the screen, the recent Mean Girls being only the latest addition to the genre, Starkey’s play feels right at home as non-offensive unprovocative summer entertainment. Hopefully, though, Starkey will give us a truly scathing satire in the future and leave this world of "campedy" behind.