It's been forever since we've had really good, outrageous, dirty-minded, over-the-top camp in Denver -- pretty much since Theatre Group gave up the ghost -- so it's a joy to find it back at the Avenue Theater in the form of Die! Mommy Die! Charles Busch's play is a spoof of such 1960s Gothic horror movies as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. The heroine, Angela Arden, is an aging movie star of the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis type, all hair, dark lipstick and glittering couture, whose makeup tends to precede her into the room by several inches. The wife of idealistic movie director Sol Sussman, whose motto is "Make it big, give it class, and leave 'em with a message," Angela is reduced to a life of shopping, bitchery, vamping and playing with her hugely well-endowed boy toy, Tony. Meanwhile, her ultra-mini-skirted daughter, Edith, adores Sol in a squirmingly faux-innocent and highly sexual way, and her cross-dressing son, Lance, has gone completely bonkers. There's also a corn-fritter-making, Bible-quoting maid, Bootsie Carp, who is in love with Sol. Given her loveless marriage, it's only natural that Angela should start entertaining ideas of murder. And then, thanks to plot turns involving poison, constipation and suppositories, LSD and a long-dead jealous sister, we find out that she isn't who she seems to be.
I am sure many comic references flew right by me because of my ignorance of this almost-impossible-to-parody-because-it-so-perfectly-parodies-itself movie era, but I still found the script very funny with all its arch double entendres, and Nick Sugar's production is slick, swift and clean. Still, it's Chris Whyde's performance as Angela that makes the entire evening so satisfying, a performance that functions more as informed and loving homage than a crude send-up, even though Whyde is also utterly ridiculous and howlingly funny, and when he's onstage - which is most of the time - you have trouble taking your eyes off him, and when he's off, you wait for him to come back. This is an impersonation Crawford herself might have liked; Whyde has every queenly gesture, pseudo-regal intonation, slow, dignified turn of the head, and changing flicker of expression down pat. When he's gobsmacked, he still maintains his dignity (except for the occasional meltdown and a couple of ear-pummeling screams); when he runs girlishly offstage, he really is rather graceful; and when he's plotting mayhem, he evokes every Bach-accompanied, lit-by-scabrous-white-moonlight, framed-by-moving-black-shadows, Gothic horror-movie sequence you've ever seen. Lamecia Landrum's terrific costumes for Angela help a lot, too, from the sports togs to the elegant little black dress. (And bravo for Tony's ghastly fawn loafers. If ever a piece of costuming completely expressed a character's vapid soul, it's these shoes.)
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Whyde is beautifully matched by Robert Wells as Sol Sussman. This character is every bit as scheming and murderous as his wife, but Wells also exudes a relaxed, lived-in humor that's very easy and appealing to watch and provides an excellent foil for everyone else's histrionics. Providing those histrionics are a sour-lipped Trina Magness as Bootsie; the aptly named Jeremy Make playing a stone-faced Tony; Julia Perrotta's perky Edith; and Cameron Stevens, who makes Lance sadly vulnerable as well as funny.
Die! Mommy Die!
Presented by the Avenue Theater, 417 East 17th Avenue, through August 29, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com.
There's no important social commentary here, no subtext to ponder. But if you're in the mood for a rip-roaring good time, this is the show to see.