“It’s a bitch sorting out our sordid lives,” sings country-western crooner Bitsy May Harling at the opening of “Sordid Lives: It’s a Drag!” at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre. But in this particular version of Del Shores’ 1996 white trash comedy it’s doubly so – and often twice as funny – thanks to the fact that men play the women characters and women play the men. And the result is anything but a drag! (Or a drag show!)
Set in a small town in Texas, the death of family matriarch Peggy Ingram has tongues wagging and her family mortified – especially her “tight ass” daughter, Latrelle Williamson. Why? Because Peggy died after a bizarre fall in a motel room after having sex with Vietnam vet and double-amputee G.W. Nethercott, a much younger man and husband of Noleta – the best friend of Peggy’s eldest daughter, LaVonda DuPree.
Planning for the funeral proves stressful, as sisters Latrelle and LaVonda clash over what their mother should wear in the coffin and whether or not their gay cross-dressing younger sibling, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, should be told of his mother’s death and attend the funeral. (Peggy institutionalized Brother Boy, who performs at the mental hospital as Tammy Wynette, 23 years earlier after an unpleasant incident with G.W.’s friend, Wardell “Bubba” Owens.) Meanwhile, Latrelle’s 20-something son, Ty – an actor and soap opera star – struggles with his homosexuality and fears coming home (and coming out) for the funeral.
With good reason, of course. His family’s crazy!
Over the years, Shores’ play won 14 Drama League Awards, moved to the big screen and, more recently, lasted a season on the Logo network. It’s his offbeat characters, though, who have been etched into the public’s consciousness, thanks to the passionate and memorable performances of such stalwarts as Leslie Jordan, Delta Burke, Beau Bridges, Olivia Newton-John and Beth Grant.
And that’s the approach directors Jamie Richards and Joe Plambeck have taken with The Ringwald’s laugh-filled production. So while the gender switch is the “hook” to get patrons into the theater, the directors have been careful not to deliver a production that is nothing more than a campy version of “Sordid Lives” in drag. (OK…it is that, but it’s also much more!) Instead, casting the show to find the perfect actors to play the roles was paramount, and for the most part, their choices were excellent.
The handsome Vince Kelley, who plays Bitsy May, not only sings the occasional country-western tune quite well, he also looks ravishing in curly blond hair, mini-skirt and heels.
Only minutes into the show, Marke Sobolewski stunned the opening night audience as Sissy Hickey, Peggy’s younger sister. He was likely the most believable as a woman – both visually and vocally – and if nothing else, we’ve discovered that he looks gorgeous in a purple dress!
Fellow improviser Matt Naas is called upon to display the widest range of emotions in the role of Latrelle, and he does so with a near-perfect blend of over-the-top pathos and comedy. His valuable training and experience served the show especially well on opening night when an unplanned “revelation” at Peggy’s coffin generated big laughs instead of uncomfortable silence.
Jamie Richards, who plays LaVonda, wins in the category of “man who’s most comfortable playing a woman.”
Of the women, Lauren Bickers excels as the bearded, limping and foul-mouthed G.W., while the always amazing Suzan M. Jacokes as Wardell creates yet another memorable character. (She says more without uttering a single word than most actors can by spouting a long paragraph of dialogue.)
Of all the gender-bent roles, the most difficult has to be Brother Boy. How does a woman play a feminine man who impersonates a woman – and keep both characteristics apparent? (The audience HAS to know Brother Boy is a living, breathing man and not a woman – despite his appearance and mannerisms.) Melissa Beckwith walks that fine line quite skillfully and delivers a nicely nuanced performance. (She obviously studied the master, as she occasionally channels Leslie Jordan’s superb interpretation of the character.)
Not as successful crossing the gender boundary is Christa Coulter, whose Ty never exhibits even an ounce of masculinity throughout the show. (That’s important, since Ty has so far been successful at hiding his sexual identity from his family and adoring fans.)
“Sordid Lives” is at its best when directors Richards and Plambeck plumb the absurdities of their characters’ lives and personalities. But the show loses steam a little when the tone gets serious or introspective. But thankfully those moments are in the minority, which means audiences can expect to laugh a lot – and for long periods of time – which is what we expect from Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald!
‘Sordid Lives! It’s a Drag’
Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Saturday-Monday through Aug. 2. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com.