GLEN? OR GLENDA?
at Live Bait Theater
Late night used to be a free-trade zone of sorts for daring theatrical ideas, a time on theaters’ otherwise risk-averse schedules when directors such as Greg Allen and Mick Napier or performers such as Paula Killen could play around without having to be afraid if they failed. Increasingly, however, money-minded producers, inspired by the phenomenal success of Napier’s Coed Prison Sluts and Allen’s Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, are trying to find late-night cash cows of their own. As a result the late-night market is now glutted with shows, all too many of them mere shadows of the late-night hits.
Glen? Or Glenda?, Interplay’s current late-night offering, is strikingly similar in concept and execution, if not tone, to Some Mo’ Productions’ late-night hit of a year ago, Reefer Madness. That show’s adapter and director Sean Abley, stealing a page from Jill and Faith Soloway’s Real Live Brady Bunch, created a comedy hit by merely having his actors act out verbatim the cult antireefer documentary. Now Andrew J. Dahlman and Rob MacDonald have taken the very odd exploitation film Glen or Glenda? and translated it verbatim to the stage, but with considerably less success. Part of the problem is that Glen or Glenda? is a far more complex and contradictory film than the rather obvious Reefer Madness, and so demands something far more radical than a camped-up word-for-word adaptation.
The first film of schlockmeister Edward D. Wood Jr., best known as the man responsible for Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda? is a bizarre, genre-defying mess. But it’s a fascinating mess, part documentary, part fiction, part autobiographical meditation on sex roles, transsexuality, and transvestism.
The film features three narrators: an unseen voice-over narrator, who displays a real fondness for pointless platitudes (“The world is a strange place to live in. All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans”); an odd character called the Spirit (played by Wood’s pal Bela Lugosi), who spouts portentous non sequiturs (“Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for”); and a psychiatrist, who in the course of a rambling conversation with a police inspector actually gets around to the central narrative: the story of two transvestites, Glen and Alan. Glen finds happiness in the arms of an understanding wife (she even loans him the angora sweater he lusts after); Alan, an ex-marine, finds happiness only after undergoing an arduous sex-change operation.
In translating Glen or Glenda? to the stage, Dahlman and MacDonald (and director Michael Wexler) remain true to the letter of Wood’s work–a good 98 percent of the dialogue comes straight from the film. But they completely miss its spirit. They never seem to have decided whether they were creating an homage to Wood’s inspired lunacy or a send-up of his awkward filmmaking. So they do both, sometimes reproducing Wood’s painful sincerity (as in Ken Bradley’s sympathetic portrayal of Glen/Glenda) and other times camping up his story outrageously (as when Glen’s mother and the nurse at the psychiatrist’s office are played by men in drag).
In the show’s most inspired moments they manage both at once, most notably at the top of the show when David Pence, looking for all the world like Barry Goldwater in 1964, comes out and delivers, with a very nerdish, sexually frustrated intensity, Wood’s prologue to the film: “In the making of this film, which deals with a strange and curious subject, no punches have been pulled, no easy way out has been taken.” Sadly, these moments are few and far between. Most of the time Glen? Or Glenda? is significantly less funny and considerably less interesting than the movie it’s based on.
At least Dahlman and MacDonald started with an intriguing premise. The authors of the Illegitimate Players’ late-night show–Maureen Morley, Keith Cooper, and Doug Armstrong–didn’t.
Set on the eve of President Kennedy’s assassination, Mystery Date concerns a group of stereotypical early-60s high school kids who go through all the usual personal crises preparing for their homecoming dance. Laura, the perky, domineering cheerleader who wants desperately to be homecoming queen, discovers her jock boyfriend Johnny is two-timing her. The bookish but sincere Barbara Ann has all but given up hope of going to the dance, until she meets Shank, the quintessential motorcycle-riding, black-leather-jacketed rebel.
The obvious message is that the quaint innocence of Northeast Central West High School is about to end. However, the mild irony of Laura, Johnny, and Barbara Ann going frantic over a dance we know will be canceled because of Kennedy’s death is not enough to redeem this evening’s worth of old jokes and cliches. After Grease, American Graffiti, and ten years–God help us–of Happy Days, do we really need to see another superficial comedy about adolescence in the late 50s and early 60s?