By John Quinn
“Flowers in the Attic,” the 1979 novel by V. C. Andrews, is a particularly nasty bit of Chick Lit. It retains, however, something of a cult following. That’s more than can be said of Jeffery Bloom’s 1987 film. The writer/director cut out a whole lot of nasty and didn’t have a whole lot left with which to work. In short, the film is really bad.
The subversive minds at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre have a knack for turning the really bad into really good parodies. When local playwrights Marke Sobolewski and Joe Bailey tackled this chestnut, they cannonballed into the muddy waters of both novel and screenplay to create the unauthorized, unorthodox “Flowers Up Her Attic.” The comedy is as raunchy as its title would suggest.
Corrine (Lisa Melinn), widowed and penniless, returns to stately Foxworth Manor, her parents’ home. In tow are four children, the progeny of her incestuous marriage to her father’s brother. The Grandmother (Joe Bailey, cross dressing yet again), a religious fanatic, hates the children because they were conceived in sin. She insists on hiding them in the attic until The Grandfather, who knows nothing about them (and, in fact, isn’t in the play), has died.
The children, teens Christopher (Vince Kelly) and Cathy (Julie Spittle), and the very young twins, Cory (Matthew Arrington) and Carrie (Suzan M. Jacokes), expect only a few days internment, but days turn into years as Corrine’s visits dwindle. They are subjected to pretty severe child abuse at the sadistic hands of The Grandmother. The truth will out – Corrine has remarried and is living the high life without the baggage of children.
So, are sadism, murder and child abuse proper topics for comedy? Ordinarily, the answer is “no,” but the choice of these plot devices lies with the creators of novel and screenplay. Employing burlesque to skewer those who have exploited taboo subjects seems a fitting revenge. Parody demands no suspension of disbelief – in fact, take it seriously and you miss out on the fun. At the Ringwald, sit back with the assurance that the artists think the source material is as tacky as you do.
Successful parody is dependent on technique. Are you old enough to remember the “Went with the Wind” skit on “The Carol Burnett Show?” If so, how’s your arthritis? But seriously, that sketch rates about a 95% “funny” rating on the website “Funny or Die.” I attribute its success to the absolute sincerity with which Burnett and her cast could sell a gag. Regarding her scavenged drapery dress, worn complete with curtain rod, “Scarlet” remarked, “I saw it in the window and just had to have it.” Burnett’s deadpan delivery made it one of the most memorable quips in TV history. In “Flowers Up Her Attic,” Lisa Melinn’s technique is always in the zone. “Corrine” has a monologue in which the stage business has her adding a powder to powdered donuts. It’s a revelatory scene for folks familiar with the plot; for a newbie like me it was a lesson in comic timing.
Joe Bailey co-wrote, directed and performs in “Flowers Up Her Attic,” a burden that seldom works well, since the artist is too close to the material to see its flaws. Not so here; Bailey pulls it all off with flying colors, even though dressed in basic black. Hot on the high heels of his portrayal of “Mrs. Garrett” in this summer’s revival of “The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode,” Bailey, also “in the zone,” demonstrates once again he can cross dress with the best and yet sell a role with utter integrity.
Opening night of any play is fraught with anxiety, and jitters can become titters. Breaking character gives the audience a feeling they’re in on a private joke, but sections of this performance were just too loose, even for comedy. I expect it will tighten up as the run progresses.
For a critic who takes in a lot of The Ringwald’s parodies, I probably don’t ask this question often enough. Does an audience need to be familiar with the source material in order to appreciate the humor? For this company’s work, it is not usually necessary. I had no prior run-in with “Flowers in the Attic.” Though there are some references that went over my head, far more struck my funny bone. If they can milk this much fun out of a one-trick-pony, think what they could do with “Tobacco Road!”
‘Flowers Up Her Attic’
The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Saturday-Monday through Oct. 29. 57 minutes. $10. 248-545-5545. http://www.TheRingwald.com