By John Quinn
English, that most flexible of languages, has lots of words with multiple meanings. Woe to the writer who legitimately uses the right word, only to have his readers misunderstand his intent. Thus if I describe the Ringwald Theatre’s revival of their 2008 hit, “The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode” as an unadulterated travesty, you might not get my meaning.
Travesty: n. A literary or artistic burlesque of a serious work or subject, characterized by grotesque or ludicrous incongruity of style, treatment, or subject matter. 2. A literary or artistic composition so inferior in quality as to be merely a grotesque imitation of its model. 3. Any grotesque or debased likeness or imitation: a travesty of justice.
It’s a shame that the primary meaning of “travesty” has been overshadowed by definitions two and three, because travesty can be a thing of wonder, and “The Lost Episode” is wonderful travesty.
The “‘serious’ work or subject” in question is NBC’s popular ’80s sitcom “The Facts of Life,” which was set at a private boarding school in upper New York state. Edna Garrett serves as housemother to a motley quartet of young women. They include the rich, beautiful, but vacuous Blair; “Tootie,” the gossip; pleasingly plump Natalie; and tomboy-tough-girl Jo. Familiarity with the characters and typical plots of the series is helpful, but not necessary, to enjoy “The Lost Episode.”
How does that “grotesque or ludicrous incongruity of style” figure in? “Travesty” has a fraternal twin in English and that’s “transvestitism.” All the characters are played by guys in barely disguising wigs and dresses. All the more fun, as they present a randy plotline that could never make it to prime time.
Melvin Reynolds, headmaster of Eastland School, threatens to raze the girl’s dorm and build a self-aggrandizing administration building. At the same time, Mrs. Garrett’s coffee and sweet shop is facing stiff competition from Starbuck’s and may be forced to close. Blair, who may have a head for business if for nothing else, has a solution for the latter problem: “Edna’s Edibles” begins selling pornographic tasties. Raising enough money to buy off Reynolds is tougher, but the girls find an alternative method of fundraising. Two rousing production numbers demonstrate that Edna Garrett has more in common with Dolly Parton than just that DD bosom.
Travesty can be cruel, but it is at its best when the playwright has affection for his or her source material. It is clear that Jamie Morris dotes on “The Facts of Life” and renders a tight, terribly funny turn on the sitcom genre. There’s ample opportunity to spoof the characters.
Thus Joe Bailey’s immaculately coifed Mrs. Garrett performs vocal acrobatics Charlotte Rae could only hope to master. It should come as no surprise for Ringwald regulars that Bailey also directs of this fun-fest.
Richard Payton takes self-obsessed Blair Warner to new depths of sexual depravity. Jerry Haines revives all of Tootie’s sass, with just a touch of moral turpitude. Joe Plambeck is a self-referential Natalie, noting how the “fat girl” laughs her lines to hide her tears. Jamie Richards acts the most outrageous role of the night. Playing a testosterone-charged Jo with five-o’clock-shadow and bare, unshaven legs, the character’s sexual ambiguity – on top of cross-dressing – is parody at its best. Hats off to Melissa Beckwith for her bright and silly costuming; is she also responsible for the dead-on, character-defining wigs that add so much to the performances?
Make no mistake – travesty is an acquired taste. “The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode” is bawdy, rude and crude. The plot, dialogue and characters are so over-the-top that they could only be presented by men barely pretending to be women. But if you’re comfortable with a loving parody played by actors who are clearly enjoying every minute with their audience, a taste for the outrageous is worth cultivating.
‘The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode’
The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Saturday-Monday through Aug. 13. 96 minutes. $10-$15. 248-556-8581. http://www.theringwald.com