A servant is dismembered, a wheelchair occupant is tortured, and heads roll … literally. Can comedy get any blacker than that?
Not according to Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks, which is ushering in Halloween with a production of "Gorgons," author Don Nigro’s blackest of black comedies.
The dark tale of two aging actresses sniping, bitching and going at each other with hatchets is one more psycho-biddies-at-play offering this season. Any resemblance to "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" or other films from the unseemly genre it occupies is anything but coincidental, according to "Gorgons" director Drew Brhel.
"This is just a guess, but I think Don Nigro started to write a backstage play about the making of 'Baby Jane' and found he had a much deeper and more universal subject," says Brhel, who is making his Renaissance directorial debut. "I think the whole 'Baby Jane' aspect of this play is, in the end, superficial."
Despite the fact that the characters bear more than a passing resemblance to "Baby Jane" actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford gone to seed, the "Gorgons" narrative follows its own course to what is described as a surprising conclusion. Think of it as another chapter in the lives of the same two characters without the crippling car accident.
By the 1960s, former screen legends Ruth (Renaissance co-founder and veteran Jennifer Rupp) and Mildred (Renaissance newcomer Marcella Kearns) are past their primes. But they are still in fighting shape when it comes to their long-standing professional and personal rivalry.
An opportunity for Ruth appears in the form of "Gorgons," a low-budget, campy horror film about two homicidal sisters – but only if she can coerce a fellow screen legend to sign on and thus secure the production’s necessary funding. What better choice than Mildred, who like Ruth is desperately seeking to reignite her long-faded career?
The pair agrees and ends up throwing fits, punches and heads. In the process, they seriously injure each other before realizing the value of working together. It is a match made in hell, but one that must mount a united effort to keep a disaster of a film from becoming an embarrassing career epitaph for both of them.
"Don Nigro has done a fantastic job conjuring the essences of Davis and Crawford in their dialogue, their histories and their careers," says Kearns, whose character is patterned after Davis. "There are quite a few references to 'Baby Jane,' 'Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,' 'Strait-jacket' and other films of that genre."
The play also pays homage to the low-budget horror films of the 1960s. And the references to Davis and Crawford will not be lost on fans who know and love – or maybe hate – them.
"Ruth makes quite a few references to Mildred’s overacting, so I am taking a page out of Bette's demon inside and working the eyes," she says.
Brhel takes a more philosophical approach to his characters. The references to Davis and Crawford are, at best, entrees that can be both helpful and limiting to a story with a deeper core.
"I was quite clear at the outset that I didn't want Bette Davis and Joan Crawford impersonations," Brhel says. "The parallels between Mildred and Davis and Ruth and Crawford are merely handles to grasp to get the message across in a pleasing and funny way."
Like its more famous counterparts, "Gorgons" is a narrative about two people lost in the fog of their own artificial personas and how they battle their way back to reality. Underneath the comedy and insanity (literally as well as figuratively) beats a more universal story reflective of the human condition.
"Any play worth its salt will ask something about what it means to be human," Kearns says. "'Gorgons' asks flat out what it means to be so accustomed to playing a role that we lose touch with reality. I think that can apply to any of us, actors or not."
However, the audience should not take "Gorgons" as a philosophical treatise, but as the entertainment it was meant to be, Brhel says.
"What should the audience look for? Nothing," the director says. "They should come in, sit down and let the play wash over them. There are parts of the play that are a funny as anything I’ve ever worked on, and parts that are not funny at all. Just open up and see what happens."
But beware of the rolling heads.