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The Greek System

Riotous Die! Mommy! Die! transforms Electra into a Hollywood satire

Based on the familial bloodletting of Sophocles's Electra, Charles Busch's Die! Mommy! Die! twists the elements of the Greek tragedy into a larger-than-life satire that lampoons the brazen days of Hollywood, circa the 1960s. Busch's campy tour de force, now running at Theater LaB Houston in its local debut, incorporates all the main characters, although you might not recognize them: the powerful movie-mogul husband, Sol (a.k.a. Agamemnon), his murderous wife, Angela (Clytemnestra), her lover, Tony (Aegisthus), and the married couple's returning son, Lance (Orestes), and plotting, manipulative daughter, Edith (Electra). Not only has Busch swiped the structure from the classic play, but he has also added liberal references to '60s-era movie melodramas and behind-the-scenes hoopla to create his outrageously silly world.

But as funny as his script is, a good deal of Busch's wondrous inanity would be lost if not for Jim Miller's wickedly gleeful direction and Jerry Hooker's perfectly tasteless set. Everything here -- from the gaudy, faux-marble, wine-colored set to a deliciously shocking scene with Edith and a huge pair of airborne scissors -- comes together for a riotous night of theater filled with great big belly laughs.

Set back in the glory days of the '60s, the story starts with Angela, a mommy dearest of the highest order. Dressed in devilish drag, Joel Sandel sashays and saunters across the stage, playing this washed-up singer for all she's worth. Her biggest claim to fame is an ancient album titled The Chili Pepper Polka, but that doesn't stop her from attempting a comeback.

To Die for: Joel Sandel (center) camps it up as Angela, whose bloody methods influence her two children, played by Sarah Lilley and Tyler Jones.
Theater LaB Houston
To Die for: Joel Sandel (center) camps it up as Angela, whose bloody methods influence her two children, played by Sarah Lilley and Tyler Jones.

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(713)868-7516. $20-$22.
runs through February 13 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo,

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Her marriage to Sol (Kit Fordyce), a big-time movie producer, is on the rocks. Her "cool cat" lover, Tony (Jerry Miller), a washed-up actor from the series Squad Car 13, tomcats around her Beverly Hills mansion with all the slinky charm of a self-described "swinger who's never without the perfect cufflinks or cocktail." Daughter Edith (Sarah Lilley) adores her daddy a bit too much, caring little about what happens to Mommy. When prodigal son Lance (Tyler Jones) returns home after being kicked out of school for "inciting a homosexual orgy in the faculty lounge," Angela is reduced to cooing sweet nothings to her boy and asking in that tender, oh-so-motherly way, "Are you a cocksucker?"

What's a mommy to do? Well, for one thing, wear lots of floor-length turquoise chiffon (these wonderful, outlandish outfits come courtesy of costume designer Kristina Hanssen). Learn a lot about suppositories and poison, for another. And when all else fails, fall back on Hollywood melodrama and tear-jerking sentimentality.

These ludicrous scenes are executed with mouthwatering irreverence for "serious" theater. Joel Sandel throws back his head, sweeps out his chiffoned arms and happily embraces the hyperbole that Angela personifies, the fading grandam dowager who sings with a woeful warble and is hot for the wrong kind of man. Wonderful too is Miller's utterly icky boy-toy Tony. His voice purrs with playboy charm, and he pads across the stage with all the oily ease of Hugh Hefner.

Lilley's Edith, who suffers from a series of bad-hair days, is hysterical as the prudish daughter who falls under Tony's wicked spell. "I will pet your dingle," she giggles. But it's Jones as Lance, the neglected son who wants to give Tony a "head-to-toe tongue bath," who steals the show whenever he walks on stage. His timing is both subtle and dead on. Troubled by a strange complex that makes him beat his head to a bloody pulp to stop the voices inside, Lance is a maniacal loose cannon who adores his mother to the point of dressing up like her, turquoise chiffon and all. Creepy, campy and wickedly funny, Lance is the quintessential psycho character from some Hollywood B movie.

The play moves quickly to its inevitable ending, though there are a few juicy surprises along the way. And though the script is weakened by too much exposition about Angela's troubled past, the long monologue is handled with great aplomb by this gutsy director and his energetic cast. As funny and silly as anything to come along in quite a while, Die! Mommy! Die! earns each and every one of its exclamation marks.

Die! Mommy! Die! runs through February 13 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $20-$22.


Atomic Cafe's production of Mac Wellman's Cat's Paw takes work to sit through. Experimental, political and essentially formless, this strange play, subtitled a meditation on the Don Juan theme, hurdles through a series of big ideas and lands far outside the familiar territory of a plot-driven conflict. Indeed, absolutely nothing happens.

Instead, four women chew over the worries of their world, worries that include elusive and badly behaving men, difficult mothers and, most of all, the politics of language, television and the generation gap. Take for instance the annoying, browbeating daughter who castigates her mother this way: "What you do not comprehend, Mother, is how bogus and sentimental your phony, liberal, socialistic pipe dream truly is. America hates the weak, Mother, because they are weak." Then there's the mother who stands on the observation deck of the Empire State Building musing over how long it would take to "make impact. Land. Hit the sidewalk."

Dark, ironic and quirky, Cat's Paw has a sort of high-handed theatricality that makes it very difficult to watch -- and apparently even more difficult to perform. The mostly young and clearly talented cast does not seem to be quite ready for the complexity of this work. And they have not been given much help from director and designer Wayne Wilden. On opening night the actors were frustratingly erratic; they seemed to be either glued to the stage, unwilling to move at all, or jumping about for no reason whatsoever. In fact the entire project felt like a long night in acting class. Edifying perhaps, but a hard and sometimes grueling lesson.

Catàs Paw runs though January 29 at Atomic Cafe, 1320 Nance, (713)222-ATOM. $10.

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