Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The promotional material for Who Wants Cake?'s Die! Mommie! Die! gives a big, unsubtle wink to the viewer. "IN 3D!," it cackles, because in contrast to TV and movie entertainments, live theater is inherently three-dimensional, no glasses required. As adorable as the joke is, it's especially fitting for this campy parody, deliciously overacted and overproduced in order to reproduce the sensation of a B-movie genre that director Joe Plambeck likes to call psycho-biddy. Essentially, take Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and turn it up to eleven.

There's murder and mystery to spare in this action-driven comedy by Charles Busch. Former singing sensation Angela Arden (Joe Bailey) had a career that publicly tanked in the wake of her twin sister's tragic death. A dozen or so years later, the 1967 Angela is trapped in her loveless marriage with diminishing-returns producer Sol Sussman (Alan Madlane) and saddled with a hateful daughter (Melissa Beckwith) and criminally dim son (Vince Kelley). Then Angela hits upon a way out, namely murder, one that takes a truly unorthodox — and wickedly funny — form. The devilish act is followed by: threats of murder, more murder, suspicions of murder, flinging around murder accusations, extracting confessions of murder, solving murders. The cast is rounded out by two Who Wants Cake? newcomers, both from Go Comedy! just around the corner: Suzan M. Jacokes is the hard-swilling, Bible-thumping maid not so secretly in love with Sol, and Bryan Lark is the tennis pro who uses his sole talent of insatiable sexual prowess for leverage with nearly the entire family.

Under Plambeck and assistant director Christa Coulter, the cast of six generally play off each other well, although their energies and deliveries are somewhat mismatched during the low points. Once the plot starts roiling, they hit the same groove and stay there for scene after scene of pandemonium. I especially loved the performances of primary masterminds Bailey and Beckwith, who spend the entire show apparently facing off in their own personal crazy-eyes competition. Ultimately, it's Bailey who triumphs in a trippy climactic scene in which Angela's terrible secret is revealed; the actor brilliantly juggles two internally conflicted characters with surprising clarity and exhausting skill. In a remarkably physical show, one effect deserves special mention, yet it's too good to spoil: suffice it to say, especially in such close proximity, the sleight-of-hand is simply jaw dropping.

The production goes for a tongue-in-cheek approach to the overblown story in tandem with fully committed histrionics, and seem to pull off both at once. It helps to have dozens of artfully terrible movie-style music cues to ramp up the absurdity, and the sound design (also by Plambeck) willingly complies. Visual elements are attributed to Katie Orwig (set, lighting, and props) and Kelley (costumes and props), recreating the busy look of a "classy" Hollywood home, down to the ornate phone and chessboard tile floor. Kelley, whose vintage frocks are an embarrassment of riches on the women, also lends his voice to the tinny numbers played between scenes, ostensibly the voice of pre-washup Angela.

There's a forgivable sloppiness to Die! Mommie! Die!, an undercurrent of screw-you-we-meant-to-do-this that adds to its curious charm. A few prop and line mishaps were handled ably on opening night; simply drawing as much attention to them as possible and letting the audience share in the laugh is the best fit for this style. Between holds for laughs and holds for insane, drawn-out reaction shots, the running time of this one-act play creeps awfully close to two full hours, and yet — again with the comparison — we gamely sit through movies at least this long without interruption. In fact, the biggest trouble some viewers will have is battling their tantalizing compulsion to talk back at the screen.


Post a Comment