An unusual feast at The Ringwald

By John Quinn

The creative minds around town have given us some rare and tasty parodies of famous films - most notably, "Evil Dead - The Musical" from Who Wants Cake? and Go! Comedy's "RoGoCop - The Musical." But if any film deserved to be eviscerated it's Joseph L. Mankiewicz's ham-handed, 1959 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer." Despite its pedigree and all-star cast, which includes Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, this is not a good film. Even though Williams got screen credit for the script, he disowned the flick, telling "The Village Voice" in 1973 that the film "made [him] throw up" and that the script moved too far away from his original play. Part of that was the director's attempt to assuage the Production Code Administration over the more controversial themes. Most distressing, though, is the usual cinema attempt to "open up" a play and provide literal interpretations best left to an audience's imaginations. The result is not unlike a Universal Pictures monster movie. It was half camp already before The Ringwald Theatre chose to spit and roast it as part of its tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, "Liz-a-Palooza."

Last summer, something terrible happened on a European vacation. Sebastian Venable died under mysterious circumstances, and his niece, Catharine Holly, seems to have been driven insane by the tragedy. Sebastian's mother, Violet (Lauren Bickers), has her confined in an institution to prevent her from repeating the horror story she babbles. In order to preserve her son's "chaste" reputation, she calls in the ambitious young Dr. Cukrowicz (Mikey Brown), a specialist in the latest technique in treatment of mental disorders - lobotomy. "You've got to cut this hideous story out of her brain," she demands, and dangles money as bait. Also bribed are Catharine's mother (Carrie Lynn Hall) and brother (Vince Kelley). Under a truth serum, Catharine reveals the shocking story of her cousin's death - but is it an objective or subjective account? Is Catharine sane or insane?

Much of the comedy here is derived from overtly playing the sexual tensions implicit in the script, mainly the rivalry between Violet and Catharine for Sebastian's attention that is later transferred to the good doctor. Some of the action is over-the-top burlesque; most of it is well-planned satire. I sense that director Joe Plambeck and his cast made this a collaborative effort and their investment pays off handsomely. The elfin Genevieve Jona, as Sister Felicity, Catharine's escort from the institution, sets the benchmark here for camp performances.

And what are we to say about that most important character, the tortured Catharine Holly? First and foremost, she's played by Marke Sobolewski. While that's a great visual gag -even in sensible heels, he towers over his colleagues - something more is afoot. He's not really aping Taylor; Sobolewski is actually playing the character, albeit for laughs. About half-way through the semi-climactic, revelation monologue, the performer dispenses with the frivolity, and begins (if you will excuse the expression) to play it straight. Despite the raven black wig, the white dress and heels, I forgot the female impersonation and reveled in the match of an actor's craft to playwright's intent. It's a remarkable achievement.

I've never been able to agree with the common exegesis of "Suddenly, Last Summer." I wholly disagree with director Mankiewicz's dismissal that the play was "based on the most elementary Freudian psychology," even though Williams had just unsuccessfully endured psychotherapy. If there is any identification between the playwright and his phantom character, it lies in the name "Sebastian," Christian martyr. I think "Summer" is as close as the playwright came to writing dark comedy. I've likened the relationship between artist and critic to the eternal enmity between mongoose and cobra. Both critics and cobras are all venom and fangs, but in nature, the mongoose triumphs. Not so in the arts, where the critic always gets in the last bite. I think Williams was fed up feeding spoiled brats on the largesse of his genius, only to have them turn around the next day and rip him to shreds in the papers - or, for followers in his footsteps, websites.

Scholarly badinage is all well and good, but nothing to lose one's head over. There are laughs to be shared at The Ringwald this month, which seems like the natural order of things.

REVIEW:

'Suddenly, Last Summer'

The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Plays in repertory through March 11. $10-20. 248-545-5545. http://www.TheRingwald.com

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