“Die Mommie Die!” is playwright Charles Busch's homage to the melodramatic films that swept Hollywood in the 1960s. It combines the hyper-sincerity of a soap opera with the inevitable tragedy of Homer.
The female lead character is Angela Arden, a fading cabaret singer whom Busch played on stage in 1999 and in the 2003 film version. Arden is an ode to the high drama of the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland style of movie star.
Beginning Thursday, Queen City Theatre Company will be the first Charlotte group to stage this emerging cult comedy. Busch, who penned and starred in “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and “Psycho Beach Party,” applies his cultural literacy to create a text with both substance and silliness.
“This is ridiculous comedy,” says director Glenn Griffin. “Charles Busch talks about how, if you watch these movies, the dialogue is ridiculous but they are so serious. There's a fine line between bad acting and brilliance.”
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Why does Angela Arden have to be played by a man? Well, she doesn't, but Griffin thinks that adds an essential element of comedy. “Back then a lot of the movie stars had many male qualities, and a man can homage them and play them a little further than a woman can,” Griffin says.
Hank West plays the fabulous Angela. He has eight costume changes and wears three wigs. West prepared for the role by wearing heels and shaving his legs with an electric razor. That tip came from actress Jorja Ursin, who received it from actor Billy Ensley, who had to shave regularly for his role in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Ursin, who plays Angela's maid Bootsie, hopes the show is an antidote for the troubles on the news every night. “I see it as an all out, big old comic pratfall; an outrageous belly laugh of a time. Frankly, with all the problems going on in this city and country right now, I'm happy to come to rehearsal and be racked out. It is so cleverly done. Hank has gorgeous legs. I'm so jealous,” she says.
West acknowledges that being a man in a female role is part of the production's camp, but he doesn't think it's necessary for the audience to know he is a man. Steve Martin, who plays Angela's husband, Sol, agrees. Whatever the role, “actors still go through the same stuff you do as an actor,” says Martin. “Intention, motivation, blocking, and on top of that there is style.”
West appreciates the opportunity to pay tribute to great films. “Back then people went to the movies to get away from everything,” he says. “Now we don't have that need for those larger-than-life people on the screen because we have many other choices. This is one way of showing appreciation of that period of our history.”
“Die Mommie Die!” could appeal to a broad audience, including movie buffs, soap opera addicts, those who enjoy a good on-stage death scene, and admirers of female impersonators.
“There's room to go to the theater and think or not think,” says Griffin.
Take your choice.