By Carolyn Hayes
Not content to go dormant between mainstage seasons, The Ringwald has made an annual practice of throwing a bonus comedy production just as these lazy, hazy, crazy days reach their peak. Fittingly, the theater refers to this tradition as “summer camp.” This year’s selection, penned by Dyan Bailey and Brandy Joe Plambeck and directed by the latter, lovingly lampoons a cult classic diva horror film just dripping with satiric potential. Dust off the matronly Joan Crawford fright wig and slather on the Bette Davis pancake stage makeup – it’s time for “Whatever, Baby Jane!” to storm the stage.
As with any parody, the 1962 original, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” is recommended viewing in order to get the most of the stage experience. Still, newcomers will gain a quick story foothold: An opening video segment by Dyan Bailey appropriates scenes from the movie to trace the backstory of vaudeville sensation Baby Jane Hudson (Joe Bailey), whose childhood fame receded into the shadow of her ascending movie-star sister, Blanche (Richard Payton). After witnessing a mysterious car accident, the viewer catches up with the sisters decades later, living together in a desolate Hollywood mansion – Blanche confined to her upstairs bedroom in a wheelchair, with Jane the resentful and withholding caretaker.
Scenic designer Alexander Trice uses a multitude of DIY innovations to tiptoe past the gravel and peep through the stucco walls into a visually dissonant interior, not to mention generating locales beyond the house and manifesting pianos seemingly out of thin air. This flexibility allows the adaptation to hew close to the original, jumping among sisterly standoffs, intrusions by nosy neighbors and concerned housekeepers, and excursions to carry out plot developments. Although all the remaining characters are played by just two actors (Dyan Bailey and Joel Mitchell), very few scenes are impossible to reproduce, so that the show is by and large a reproduction with ample commentary.
And indeed, the meta, editorial voice continues almost nonstop. While the writing skews blue in more than a few dips into depravity, and some story incongruity is cleverly heightened or otherwise underlined, the production as a whole plays like a catalog of unrelated – albeit hilarious – bits and rejoinders, many germinating entirely in the moment. Nothing is above an aside, be it one of the many obliquely garish sound cues (by designers Dyan Bailey and Plambeck) or lighting excesses (also by Plambeck), which are wedged in from all sides as added comic fodder, but just as often serve as springboards for more ad-libbed silliness.
Of course, the show’s real draw is in reanimating the Hudson sisters, transforming two male actors in all their grotesque, glamorous glory. While costumer Bailey Boudreau and assistant Tanner Murray exhibit fine character work in the matronly – the dumpy, the out-of-fashion, and the bizarrely inappropriate – the piece de resistance here is from the neck up, in the form of devastating wigs (by Buddy VanLoon) and outrageous feats of makeup (by an uncredited mad drag genius). The looks do justice to the core impression work, from Joe Bailey’s bitten-off Bette Davis speak to Payton’s condescending Joan Crawford propriety. What’s more, the pair’s rapport onstage consistently has the feel of a double-dog dare, with each surprising and one-upping the other, and both trying desperately to hold character through pauses for deafening laughter.
With snappier writing, stricter adherence to script, more attention to timing and relationship, and better integration of effects with live action, this “Whatever” might have been a keener send-up of its source material. Yet the production’s conscious decision to instead dig down for the kind of spontaneous, immediate comedy that can only happen with live theater yields an experience all the rarer, certainly wilder, and exhibiting an unconventional – but no less impressive – skill set. This kind of pure-sugar indulgence is a superb capper to a carefree summer day, giving audiences their sweet fill of laughter and sending them off with the best kind of bellyache.
‘Whatever, Baby Jane!’
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. July 12, 14, 18, 19, 21, 25, 26, 28, Aug. 1, 2, 4
3 p.m. July 13, 20, 27, Aug. 3
1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission