Playwright Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife; Psycho Beach Party; Die, Mommy, Die) didn't invent camp, but his early drag classics most assuredly enriched and, dare I say, ennobled the genre. And here's the best of those gay-tinged extravaganzas, aswirl with Hollywood's lost glamor and a very gay read of sex and the city.
A struggling actor and solo performer, Busch wrote this silly romp (1984) in two and a half days after he got a gig at the funky Limbo Lounge, an East Village performance space/bar/punk art gallery. What the Limbo audience wanted, he said later, after the show kept running and running, was "something campy, something sexy, and something not too long, because you're standing up, holding a beer. You don't want to see The Three Sisters." So he gave them this spoof of Hollywood and its grand divas like Crawford, Davis and Shearer. Of course, here, the ladies are more B-picture Maria Montez, but they are divas nevertheless.
Nobody does diva like Charles Busch, and the success of his early work relies almost exclusively on a good drag queen. Unhinged Productions should be on their knees -- in thankful prayer, I mean -- for Chris Rivera. He puts the showbiz snap into diva Magda Legerdemain, who starts out as the legendary vampire succubus in Sodom, seducing virgin sacrifices. He's got Harlow's pencil eyebrows, Swanson's turban, the gams of Clara Bow and the gargle of Bankhead. In a needed plot device, the succubus -- all done up in silent film DeMille vamp -- is bitten by her sacrifice (Courtney Lomelo), who in turn becomes a vampire, too, and Magda's archrival through the ages. They compete for fame, nubile young companions and our hearty laughs. It's all cheesy glee as we're treated to a funhouse parody of all things drag and glorious in Biblical Sodom, '20s Hollywood and then '80s Las Vegas of fat Elvis days.
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The two goddesses are ably enhanced by the zany supporting cast: Will Gough, Roy Hamlin, Susan Ly and Giddony Sanchez. And a special air kiss to Rivera and Nathan Estrada, who co-designed the sumptuous over-the-top costumes with a panoply of peacock, lamé, boa and bugle bead. Busch would weep for such extravagance.
Sprightly spun -- or just turned loose, who can tell -- by Joe Angel Babb, the entire enterprise whirls away with bitchy attitude. It's almost like a lost era. It's grand to see its ridiculous return.
Through October 22. Unhinged Productions at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation. 832-250-7786.