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Carr’s Halsted Street Cabaret

Check your egos at the door, Quincy Jones reportedly told the famous singers on his record “We Are the World.” Playwrights Sal Emmino and Dane Hall refrain from making such an impossible demand on the characters in their hilarious, raunchy camp comedy Dressing Room Divas. Rather, their celebrity heroines–Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, and Joan Collins–flaunt their egos as widely and wildly as possible. Locked in a tiny dressing room as the hostages of an overendowed, publicity-seeking gunman, played by gay-theater reliable Darren Stephens, the five stars trade barbs about each other’s love lives and image problems, personal crises and professional disasters. Armed with sharp tongues, short tempers, and long memories, the ladies trash each other (and a host of other folks, from Madonna and Melanie Griffith to Heidi Fleiss and Helen Keller) with fiendishly funny delight while wallowing in the outsize eccentricities of their libidinous, tabloid-toned public personas. For these aren’t the real Bette and Meryl and Julie and Joan and Liz–whoever they are–but the ludicrous icons those women have become in a society that mocks celebrities as part of idolizing them.

This kind of show-biz spoof can get real tired real fast if it’s not played real well. Luckily the briskly paced production that Steven Helgoth has staged at Carr’s Halsted Street Cabaret, a cozy show bar in the heart of Homo Heights, buzzes with snappy timing, viciously funny one-liners, and near-perfect performances. (The show’s only weak link are the shrilly stereotyped gay florists taken prisoner with the divas.) Avoiding drag-queen overkill, Helgoth (who also directed the show’s long-running production at New York’s Duplex nightclub) has cast real women in most of the roles. Kate Harris is right on target as Julie, a perky goody-two-shoes prone to accidental double entendres who pops into song at the drop of a name (it helps that Harris has a voice almost as beautiful as Julie’s in her heyday). Marna Martin looks (but doesn’t sound) just right as zaftig Elizabeth (“Butterball 8,” she’s nastily nicknamed), a stuffed-and-mounted survivor of innumerable illnesses and addictions now dedicated to passing out condoms; Kathleen Puls is a bawdy, wisecracking, Sophie Tuckerish Bette, a caricature of a cartoon; and Karen Hough is “Miss Dial-a-Personality” Meryl, strutting her virtuosity (and accents) and waving her Academy Award around (the use she makes of Elizabeth’s condoms would give the Oscar folks a heart attack).

The cast’s lone female impersonator is Paul Waters as haughty has-been Joan–an apt exception that reinforces a running theme in the script: synthetic small-screen celebrity versus big-screen star status. TV means transvestite as well as television, after all.


Bailiwick Repertory

Also in a camp-raunch vein is Camp Killspree, a new comedy created by Factory Theater maven Sean Abley for Bailiwick Repertory’s gay-oriented Pride Performance Series. A potentially funny 15-minute skit dragged out to an hour, Killspree spoofs two entertainment genres: teen makeout horror films, with their propensity for shock effects at the expense of plot and character development, and late-night gay plays like the long-running Party (playing right next door), parodied in Killspree’s peppy camaraderie, safe-sex sermonizing, gratuitous nudity, and simulated screwing.

Set at a gay male summer camp (the first scene shows counselors assiduously packing their crew socks and condoms), the play puts a same-sex twist on those old stories of escaped killers prowling secluded campgrounds and leaving bloody hooks stuck in car doors, as a group of youths expecting a week of pot smoking and Trivial Pursuit (the Broadway-musicals edition, natch) find themselves hunted by a masked killer wielding a series of gigantic deadly kitchen utensils. But their anxiety doesn’t stop them from stripping off their clothes at a moment’s notice–even though anyone who’s seen Friday the 13th knows what a little nooky can lead to.

The various technical glitches and erratic timing that plagued the Killspree preview I saw will probably be ironed out by the time this review appears. But rehearsals won’t fix the show’s main problem–a lack of wit. The humor here presumes shared memory. A guy in a ski mask must be funny because everyone’s seen Friday the 13th, and if the Jason wannabe was funny the first time he’ll be even funnier the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth . . . Similarly, if a nerdy guy doing a striptease to the accompaniment of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit video “Relax” gets a laugh when the music starts, then the longer the record plays, the funnier the bit will get. Who needs timing? Sadly lacking in the sharpness and specificity that make Dressing Room Divas so much fun, Camp Killspree is lukewarm entertainment for a hot summer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Photo.