Circle Theatre

at Synergy Center

In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” Susan Sontag states, “The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. . . . One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Certainly no show in town this side of the Baton Lounge’s weekly drag shows better fits Sontag’s description of camp than Circle Theatre’s Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane? The company serves up great heaping servings of camp–cross dressing, silly dances, show-biz spoofs, general messing around in the great sandbox of pop culture–all performed with the perverse playfulness and “attitude” that is the essence of successful camp.

Like any camp act, the premise of Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane? is so silly it sounds like a bad joke. Take a film that no one in a million years would think of turning into a musical–say, the cult classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?–and turn it into a musical.

Wayne Buidens, who is given credit in the program for “concept design,” has taken an almost word-for-word transcription of the film and subverted wherever and whenever he could the seriousness of the original story, which is about a pair of has-been sisters, one a demented alcoholic who was once a popular child performer on the vaudeville circuit, the other a former movie queen who has been wheelchair bound since an auto accident. Some of Buidens’s subversions are subtle, such as the casting of a very adrogynous-looking man (Tony Lage) in the secondary role of a neighbor, played in the movie by a woman. Other subversions are much less subtle, such as having a man in drag (Phillip Alcala) play Joan Crawford’s role or having the woman playing Bette Davis’s role (Deanna Norman) affect an amusingly god-awful Bette Davis imitation throughout the play.

Buidens’s use of music is strictly satirical. All of the songs have been lifted from other musicals (“Memory” from Cats, “Money, Money” from Cabaret, “Somewhere” from West Side Story) or from golden-oldies radio (“Baby Love,” “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Get a Job”). None of them are used the way songs are in traditional musicals–to further character development, move the story, or heighten an emotional moment within the story. Instead they’re used to comment on the plot, make fun of musical-theater conventions, or squeeze a laugh out of a serious moment in the original story–as when Jane, having found Blanche trying to phone for help, kicks her repeatedly while singing, with the help of a chorus line of male dancers, “I get no kick from champagne.” (To say that such comedy is in bad taste is beside the point: camp always sets itself up in opposition to the commonly accepted standards of taste, and hence is always, in a sense, in bad taste.)

Predictably, Buidens stumbles where most satirists stumble: unless you have recently seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or are a member of a Bette Davis cult, a lot of the in-jokes are going to sail over your head. (As they did mine. I didn’t rent the video until after I saw this show.) You’re not going to know, for example, that almost everything Buidens puts on the stage–including the seemingly digressive musical numbers and the out-of-nowhere subplot involving a drunk musical arranger Jane hires to stage her abortive comeback–relates exactly to something that happens in the original film. Or that anything that doesn’t relate to the film refers to some Joan Crawford or Bette Davis myth, including the use of wire hangers to decorate the door to Blanche’s room (see Mommie Dearest).

Buidens wants sophisticated travesty; unfortunately, many of the performers are not up to the demand. Most notably, the actors playing Jane and Blanche’s nosy, star-struck neighbors–Tony Lage and Barbara Hemminger–play their roles so straight they clash with the rest of the show. Someone should tell Hemminger in particular that she is not acting in a wholesome, naturalistic drama about life in the suburbs–next to her, June Cleaver looks wild and decadent. At the opposite end of the acting spectrum, Patrick McCartney hits new heights of overacting as Edwin Flagg, the alcoholic musical arranger. You’d think overdoing it would be par for the course in a show as outrageous as this, but McCartney overdoes the drunk bit as thousands of bad actors have done, by slurring his words, speaking slowly, and bellowing his lines when even the most plowed drunk would be doing his best to talk in a normal tone.

The best performances are by men cast in women’s roles. Phillip Alcala is superb as Joan Crawford playing Blanche Hudson. He captures perfectly the maudlin way Crawford milks the role of the long-suffering Blanche for every ounce of sympathy. Tyron Sean Perry dances up a storm as Blanche Hudson as a child in the flashback scenes. And Kevin Bellie, who may well be the most graceful overweight actor in town, plays a variety of wonderful characters, including two out-of-left-field cameos, Ethel Merman and Divine. No camp production should be without him.

In an ideal world, Buidens the director would have had a cast full of Kevin Bellies and Tyron Sean Perrys to flesh out the ideas Buidens the concept designer generated. In such a world Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane? might have reached the heights of camp established by the late Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatre. But this is Chicago, in the middle of the midwest, where sincerity has always been more valued than wit, and where camp and irony do not come as naturally to performers as gritty, sullen realism or Second City-style shtick. Still, Buidens succeeds more often than he fails and even manages to create a show frivolous and playful enough to step into the bright, unnatural light of camp.