Back when camp was truly funny -- before send-ups of obscure operas and terrible old movies became prime time TV staples -- Charles Busch elevated it to an art form. His crazy campathons trapped theater audiences in cheesy '60s drive-ins, where he spoofed the best of Tinseltown's worst. In Busch's shows, story comes second to rarefied references to Norma Shearer and Delmer Daves, and the ingénue is usually played by a middle-aged man.
Planet Earth Theatre has lately become something of a camp revival house, with recent productions of Hair and Busch's Psycho Beach Party. Its current program, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, is probably Busch's best-known comedy. The show is a fast-paced primer on hoary Hollywood clichés, and the perfect platform for a pair of actors who grab every chance to emote like blazes.
Vampire Lesbians' trio of short stories concerns La Condessa (Neil Cohen) and Madeleine (Jim Asimenios), a pair of immortals whose centuries-old rivalry is played out against a show-biz backdrop. In the prelude, Madeleine is a virgin ("Quick! Break my hymen!") sacrificed to a Theda Bara-like succubus. In the Roaring Twenties, they're silent-screen stars -- Madeleine an up-and-comer, La Condessa a player whose "box office is falling faster than her bust line" -- who are foiled by a nosy Hollywood reporter. By the '70s, these competitive queens are slumming in Vegas: Madeleine as a more-than-middle-aged headliner whose chorus line carries her through her routines, La Condessa as a charwoman ("Bad investments! I haven't worked since Love, American Style in '67!"). By curtain, they've cited a century's worth of pop culture and perpetrated a pile of in-jokes (it helps to know something about silent star Florence Lawrence or that Mamacita was Joan Crawford's devoted maid), many of which the youngish opening-night audience didn't quite catch.
Continues through Friday, July 28, at Planet Earth Theatre, 909 North Third Street. Call 602-256-0733.
It's to director Greg London's credit that a good portion of this sometimes sophisticated nonsense plays at all to Planet Earth's typically youthful crowd. He knows that his audience may not recognize riffs on Billy Haines or Ann-Margret, so he's cranked up the volume on the already campy caricatures of Hollywood stars. It doesn't hurt that -- because sex is subtext in every '60s B-movie -- Busch has heaped on the double-entendres. London places every puerile punch line front and center and has sexed up the chorus in tiny scraps of clingy fabric.
Lucky for London that Planet Earth has become a refuge for young, undertalented actors who want to appear onstage in their skivvies. That's an advantage when the script is by Busch, since bad acting is part of his punch line. Here, Planet Earth regulars appear undraped in place of the humpy glam-bombs called for in the script, occasionally attempting Busch's droll dialogue but mostly standing around holding props and announcing French scenes.
In happy contrast are the performances by the show's leads. Asimenios' reading is a blur of rolling elbows and flapping eyelashes, a gleefully smarmy recital of every arch line ever uttered on a Hollywood sound stage. And Cohen, in a brassy bellow that variously recalls Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis and Yma Sumac, emotes enough for a cast of thousands.
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The stars are utterly invisible while Jourdan Alexis Green is onstage. In a single scene, Green walks off with the entire middle section of the program. As Oatsie Carewe, she's a Hearstian scandal sheet slave who transforms herself into a scary Third Reich exorcist with one quick, onstage costume change. A good portion of Green's first-night dialogue was swallowed up by audience cheering and stunned laughter.
During moments like this, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom is entertaining enough to overcome the stifling environs of Planet Earth, a sweltering cave inefficiently cooled by a pair of stationary fans. As I fled for the faintly cooler air of the parking lot, I passed a young woman who, between puffs on a clove cigarette, ventured an opinion of what she'd just seen.
"That was a pretty funny show in there," she told her companion, a skinny fellow. "But they sure stole a lot of stuff from Buffy the Vampire Slayer."