by Bill Garry
Charles Busch's Die, Mommie, Die!, which premiered in LA in 1999, returns in a riotous new production at the Celebration Theatre. The show is a grand old party (in more ways than one) in the tradition of "Grande Dame Guignol" - campy, cross-dressed, cartoon-violent, double-entendre-filled satire that sends up morality, politics and the battle of the sexes.
Before Dame Edna, Drew Droege, Randy Rainbow, and Alan Rowe Kelly, there was Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1960s New York.
Ludlam, with his partner Everett Quinton, wrote, starred in and produced long-running shows like The Mystery of Irma Vep and
Der Ring Gott Farblonjet with Ludlam - a masterful actor - playing femme fatale, hag has-been and court jester as only a gay man in drag can.
Charles Busch - another multi-talent - appeared on the scene in the early 1980s, writing shows like Pardon My Inquisition,
Psycho Beach Party, and his 1984 hit
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which ran for five years in New York. In 1999, Busch's new hit,
Die, Mommie, Die! opened in Los Angeles, making the transition to film in 2003.
I'm sharing all this because one of the reasons to see this show is to revel in the pioneering history of the genre. Boundary-busting and truth-telling "as only a gay man in drag can" has become an integral part of the American civil rights in entertainment.
The show's first act introduces us to Hollywood has-been Angela Arden Sussman and her sordid past, sordid lover, sordid husband, and two sordid adult children. Did I mention a Republican, bible-quoting, Nixon-loving maid (who turns sordid later)?
The first act is purposely clichéd - mom's creatively blocked, movie producer hubby owes money to the mob, mom's lover comes on to both children (male and female), etc., etc. But the first act sets up the hilarious and over-the-top second act, which involves shifting loyalties, coerced confessions and familial revelations. Did I mention murder by suppository (enacted on-stage)?
The star of the show is Drew Droege, famous for his work in web series', guest spots on TV sitcoms and drag parodies (I saw him steal the show in a musical spoof of Little House on the Prairie).
In this show, he didn't quite convey the pathos and fragility of Angela; his performance was more drag queen than grande dame. A deeper portrayal would have helped in the first act, although Drew's excellent timing and muggery fit well in the second act's out-of-control farce.
Three members of the company (the only ones listed as members of Actor's Equity) stood out with performances that went beyond caricature: Julanne Chidi Hill (as Edith, the daughter), Gina Torrecilla (as Bootsie, the maid), and Pat Towne (as Sol Sussman the husband). Their acting chops lifted everyone around them.
Celebration's production values are top-notch, as always. Designer Pete Hickok turns the theater's small stage into a suitably roomy and kitschy Beverly Hills home, circa 1967. Director Ryan Bergmann uses the actors, lighting, and sound - even the on-stage audience! - to wring laughs beyond what is probably in the script.
One more thing: be sure to arrive on time. Pre-show announcements and a side-splitting filmed documentary set up the action.
Get you tickets here!