Center Theater


City Lit Theater Company

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

A desperate cry for help lies under the flip, flaky surface of Beth Henley’s new black comedy, Control Freaks. More freakish than controlled at this point, Henley’s portrait of a depraved family veers uncertainly between humor and horror; the script’s deliberately unsettled tone undercuts its believability. Yet the characters’ (and their creator’s) urgent need to communicate lends the play’s cartoonish fascination with perverse obsessions–rape, castration, coprophilia, incest, murder–a haunted power.

Set in suburban Los Angeles, Control Freaks gives John Waters’s movie Pink Flamingos a run for absurd distastefulness. Indeed, Henley’s Willard clan could give Pink Flamingos’ characters a run for the title of Most Disgusting People Alive. Carl Willard is a would-be businessman who wants to buy an old building and turn it into a furniture mart; his schizoid sister, known only as Sister, prefers an ice-milk store–and since their mother left the family money to her, Carl has to figure out a way to either change his sister’s mind or pry her fortune from her. Carl’s wife, Betty, connives with him to marry off Sister to Paul Casper, the punky businessman whose building Carl wants to buy; but Betty’s also laying plans with Paul–who’s her lover–to kill Carl and grab the money for themselves. All the schemes come to a head at a fateful dinner party, after which the stage is as strewn with bodies as in the darkest Shakespearean tragedy.

At the center of Henley’s creepy comedy of corruption is Sister, whose split personality and incestuous urges toward Carl are finally traced back to a grim family secret. Shifting back and forth between goofy, geeky “reality” and Sister’s hallucinatory dream world, the play makes us feel far more sympathy for its semipsychotic heroine than its resolutely absurd tone would seem to allow. This is partly due to Robin Witt’s compelling performance, which requires her to establish through tightly timed vocal and physical changes two separate personalities; but mainly it’s due to Henley’s personal stake in the character. Sister’s desperation seems to be the author’s too–which makes Control Freaks a startling work of catharsis, a fully felt work of imagination, or maybe a little of both. Whatever its source, this strange, flawed play commands attention.

Under Henley’s crisp direction, Witt’s performance is supported by other sharply etched characterizations. Marlene DuBois plays whiter-than-White Betty with a perfect air of beatific condescension; Marc Vann as Carl is determined to assert his manliness and individuality in a world that devalues both; and Champ Clark is in fine insinuating form as the sexy, reptilian Paul. The design team of Rob Hamilton (set), Chris Phillips (lights), Lynn Sandberg (costumes), and Joe Cerqua (sound and music) effectively create a world gradually slipping from chaotic reality to a final, literal flight of fantasy.

If the mere sight of strapping black men dressed up in southern-belle drag strikes you as inherently hilarious, then you might enjoy City Lit Theater’s Womandingo. Unfortunately, the mere sight of cross-gender, cross-racial drag is about all the show has to offer; written by Sterling Houston and directed by Arnold Aprill, Womandingo rarely goes beyond its one-joke beginning, the depiction of a southern slave auction in which all the roles are racially and sexually reversed.

The inspiration for this comedy, which employs the “genderfuck” approach associated with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, is Mandingo–both Kyle Onstott’s novel about antebellum interracial lust and the 1975 movie based on it. On this source material, Womandingo founders. Ludlam made a specialty of playing off classic literary and theatrical properties like Camille, selected for their lasting cultural resonance. Mandingo is lurid, sadistic, racist, misogynistic trash–a bad-taste joke at best and an obscenity at worst. What Aprill and Houston think it has to teach about racial and sexual issues is unclear. Rather than confronting America’s tragic flaws, Womandingo seems content to exploit them to unfunny comic effect–it wallows in routines about sexy slaves manhandling diminutive debutantes where the debutantes outweigh the slaves by a good 50 pounds; white massas flog primitive, pure-hearted blacks, but with blacks wielding the whips.

As flimsy and unappealing as this material is, it might have provoked some laughs if Aprill had directed with the eye for vocal and physical precision that marked Cloud 42’s campy B Plays in Rep a while back. But except for Michael A. Shepperd’s sharp drag-queen attitudinizing as Annabellee, the lustful belle of Lily White Oaks plantation, the City Lit cast gets by on sheer energy and not much more. (Even Shepperd’s posturing gets tediously repetitive by the second act.) Though it attempts some sort of cultural critique and perhaps even a social statement, in the end Womandingo resembles some tacky gay-bar revue of 20 years ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/JoAnn Carney.