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Cross-Dressed to Kill 

A pair of drag divas turn a Bette Davis cult classic into entertaining theater

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
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The Bette Davis vehicle Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was widely panned when it appeared on movie screens in December 1964. Conceived as a sequel to the schlock hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which starred Davis and Joan Crawford, Charlotte boasted a bigger budget but received little praise. Writing in the New York Times the following March, reviewer Bosley Crowther called the film "grisly, pretentious, disgusting, and profoundly annoying."

It's funny how time can transform even the trashiest of movies into a cult classic. The film tells the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis), an aging Southern belle, who asks her cousin and only living relative, Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland), to come to town to help prevent the family home from being torn down to make way for a new bridge. Continuously haunted by the events of a fateful night in 1927 when her lover, John Mayhew, was gruesomely and mysteriously decapitated, Charlotte is victimized by her lurid memories, the local community, and her cousin Miriam.

Charlotte may not be one of cinema's proudest moments -- the heavy-handed plot, Grand Guignol-style gore, and hokey cinematography are likely to induce tears alternately of laughter or boredom until the final credits roll -- but the film, along with predecessor Baby Jane, has spawned a passionate fan base over the years. That the gay community makes up the majority of these films' admirers should tell you something about Matthew Martin's adaptation of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the stage. Initially produced in 1994 at the Victoria Theatre and currently in revival at the Lorraine Hansberry, Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte not only celebrates the movie as a pageant of glorious camp, but also gives it a gorgeous makeover by sending it up through the flamboyant theatrics of two divine drag artists.

You couldn't find a pair of cross-dressing divas more different than Martin and Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson, sans wig and 3-inch heels). Granted, the contrast is ingrained in the original material: Charlotte, as played by the then-autumn-yeared Davis, is a brash, unkempt, but deeply neurotic old maid, as likely to swoon at the sight of a loaded gun as she is to cock and fire it. Meanwhile, Miriam/de Havilland, who arrives on Charlotte's doorstep from her home up north with a trunkload of matching luggage and a hidden agenda, shelters a deeply reprobate nature under an exterior that is prim, sophisticated, and saccharine-sweet.

Martin, who has personified Davis many times (as well as other Hollywood stars, including Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland), captures the finer points of Davis' turn as Charlotte, from the manic energy and simpering sensitivity to the watery, haunted eyes, grotesquely made-up face, and braying voice. Martin's first appearance onstage, yellow pigtails akimbo and lipstick awry, yelling, "Daaaayyymn youuuu!" at the workmen who plan on tearing down Charlotte's childhood home, is unadulterated Davis. Meanwhile Merman makes for a wonderfully smug Miriam/de Havilland, mixing haute couture with conniving condescension. The way in which Merman carries herself about the stage, looking coyly at the audience with a demure, butter-wouldn't-melt smile, captures the essence of Miriam's character completely.

Parody is one of the core elements of drag. While Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte (like Martin's earlier stage spoof, Whatever Happened to BB Jane?) follows the grand drag tradition of channeling Hollywood film stars, it is not Martin's and Merman's majestic turns as Davis and de Havilland that make the production such compelling viewing. Rather, the thrill lies in the essential difference in the two performers' styles as drag artists. Martin follows the pantomime-dame school of female impersonators -- all gangly armed and knobbly kneed shrillness, with no attempt made to conceal the fact that we're dealing with a man hiding in the body of a not particularly attractive woman. Merman, on the other French-manicured hand, is femininity incarnate. More from the school of Charles Busch and RuPaul than Dame Edna Everage, the performer has a soft, velvety voice, staggering glamour, and shimmering poise (which is no mean feat when you're supporting a 6-foot-plus frame on a pair of size-12-plus heels). In short, there isn't a hair out of place on this diva's head. When you put two performers of such remarkably contrasting qualities onstage, the gulf separating them from each other, from the film star personas they play, and from the basic characters in the plot becomes extravagantly exaggerated. Laughter is the only way to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, laughter is hard to sustain over more than two hours of what essentially boils down to a relentless B-movie spoof. As Judith Lorber puts it in the preface to The Drag Queen Anthology, "the joke in drag" is to "set up 'femininity' or 'masculinity' as pure performance, as exaggerated gender display -- and then to cut them down as pretense after all." Martin (both as director and performer) and Merman are experts at setting up and cutting down the exaggerated displays -- gender and otherwise. For example, Miriam might carry herself like Sandra Dee, but she doesn't seem to mind her ample breasts showing themselves through her thin nightdress. Even the set is in on the joke -- when Charlotte, in obeisance to the movie, hurls down a heavy-looking concrete planter from her balcony at the workmen below, instead of smashing to smithereens and narrowly avoiding the target as on celluloid, the plastic planter bounces lightly about the stage like a beach ball.

Eventually, however, the joke wears thin. Part of the problem stems from the stage production's allegiance to the film. The text comes straight from the movie. The camp aesthetic gives the corniest lines a new coat of rouge, but the sheer amount of hackneyed exposition in Henry Farrell's original dialogue (Farrell wrote the novel on which the film was based) makes many of the jokes unbearable. The production is also staged like the film is cut, featuring many short scenes separated by blackouts. The cast handles the quick changes exceedingly smoothly, but the choppiness of the structure gets tiring after a while. Ultimately, it seems, the material gets the better of Martin.

By the time you read this review, Merman will have left the show for a summer gig in Provincetown, to be replaced by Arturo Galster. Galster has some big shoes to fill, in both the literal and figurative sense. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Miriam Deering. And even if vintage Davis isn't your bag, go and see Charlotte at least for the drag.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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