Summer "Camp" Comes to The Theatre Project: Charles Busch's The Lady in Question
Also see Bob's review of The Cherry Orchard
Long before Charles Busch conquered Broadway in 2000 with his mainstream comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, he was a superstar diva-author as part of New York's East Village thriving campy gay theatre scene. His breakthrough hit was 1984's mock luridly titled Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. A relative newcomer then to a genre which had entered its golden era in the heady years which followed the Stonewall Rebellion (1969), Busch extended that era almost single handedly after the death of its most brilliant author-diva, Charles Ludlam, in 1987. Camp, which has come to be almost exclusively defined as being a gay theatrical form, is marked by cross-dressing, gross exaggeration, slapstick, and double entendre. It often satirizes, or less eloquently but most aptly put, takes off on works from classic and popular culture..
None of this should be off putting to an open minded mainstream audience. This work has never been exclusionary. Quite to the contrary, along with the artists' desire to exercise their creative sensibility, from the beginning, a key element in these presentations has been their desire to dispel prejudice by providing a welcoming and friendly face to all audiences. The aura of this style of theatre is akin to that is found in Key West, Florida, a rarified carnival destination in which all venues are comfortable for everyone regardless of age, sex, social status or sexual preference.
With The Lady in Question, Busch treats us to his specialty, which is comprised of take-offs on genre motion pictures. The genre de jour in The Lady in Question is patriotic World War II melodramas. The time is 1940, and the setting is a town in the Bavarian Alps. The heroine Gertrude Garnet, a self centered, America opera star, who is on tour. She is willfully oblivious to the inhumanities of the Nazi regime. Only after her longtime friend and traveling companion Kitty falls prey to the barbarians will she join with Professor Erik Maxwell to rescue his mother from death at the hands of the local Nazis. Most of the play transpires in the "schloss" (villa) of local Nazi commander Baron Von Elsner and his even more sinister Hitler-adoring mother, Augusta.
When Augusta shudders at Kitty's looks and tells her that she looks like an American, sneering, "You must be a combination of a million races," Kitty responds, "Yes, but you're pure bitch." When earlier on, the Baron says to Gertrude (in a tone dripping with innuendo), "May I offer you the use of my schloss?", Gertrude responds, "I can't wait to see your magnificent ... (there is a mild vulgarism employed here when a repetition of "schloss" would have been more effective)".
There are scenes and scenarios from any number of motion pictures. Because of the durability and continuing popularity of Hitchcock's Notorious, the most striking one occurs when the weak Baron seeks his mother's help as, in terror, he confesses to her, "I have fallen in love with an American agent (our Gertrude) and brought her into our home."
Under the suitably unsubtle directorial hand of Mark Spina, the entire cast acquits itself in fine, highly comic fashion. In the role of Gertrude, which Busch originally fashioned for himself, Harry Patrick Christian effectively channels Busch's high style. There is neither ridicule nor any attempt at precise imitation, but rather a sense of homage being paid to the great female screen divas. Although this is my first viewing of this particular play, it can be said that Christian's vocal phrasing and smooth femininity are certainly Busch-esque.
The valiant anti-Nazi, late adolescent Heidi is played with righteous aplomb by Jenelle Sosa. Briefly at the start as her father, and thereafter as Dr. Maximilian, relaxing between his barbaric experiments on Nazi prisoners, Jerry Lazar is all dark foolishness. Matt McCarthy is solid as Karel, Heidi's old boyfriend who has enthusiastically become a brown shirt, but will redeem himself before the final scene. Chess Lankford is fine as the forthright and stolid, but not solid, Erik Maxwell, Gertrude's love interest who is on a mission to rescue his mother from the bad guys.
Dennis DaPrile, after appearing briefly as a young painter hiding anti-Nazi code in his public works art, garners some of the biggest laughs as the Baron's little, blonde pigtailed and demonically cruel and murderous niece, Lotte. Gary Glor is on target as the imperious but craven Baron. Bev Sheehan as Gertrude's sidekick Kitty supplies a down-to-earth humorous edge to the stock Eve Arden-like role. Noreen Farley in the dual role of the fearsome Augusta and the idealistic actress Raina whose rescue provides the play's narrative drive, is delightful as she brings a very different off centered dottiness to the playing of each.
Special praise is due to scenic designer Jessica Parks, who has designed an ingenious and flexible set for the farcical action occurring in various locations within, and in the neighborhood of, the Baron's villa. Maggie Baker's costumes nicely maintain the high and low style elements of the text.
The Lady in Question continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.)/Sun. 3 p.m.) through July 30, 2006 at The Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 908-659-5189/ online: www.TheTheaterProject.com.
The Lady in Question by Charles Busch; directed by Mark Spina