C’est la Guerre, Wilmington’s newest theatre company, makes their debut with Charles Busch’s “The Lady in Question” in The Blind Elephant—a speakeasy bar between Front Street Brewery and Port City Java on Front Street.
As a playwright and performer, Busch is known for “Psycho Beach Party,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ (which he wrote for former Wilmington resident and Tony-award winner, Linda Lavin). Busch has usually preformed the lead female role in his shows (with the exception of “Allergist’s Wife”), and they tend to dwell somewhere in a nostalgic, campy adoration of older cinema—like a less violent Myra Breckenridge in real life. “The Lady in Question” is not his most well-known show, nor is it a stage version of the Rita Hayworth movie of the same name (a likely assumption if you know Busch’s work). Set in Nazi Germany, Professor Mittelhoffer (David Bollinger) and his daughter, Heidi (Beth Raynor) are at the train station to meet a visiting American academic, Erik Maxwell (Erik Maasch). These two appear to be a poorly organized and all-too vocal residence cell against the Nazi regime who have decided to help Maxwell rescue his mother, Rania Aldric (Tom Briggs). Maxwell has not seen his mother since his parents divorced as a child, as she has been touring Europe as an actor ever since.
At the same train station are the world-famous and truly self-involved Gertrude Garnet (George Domby) and her sidekick, the Countess De Borgia a.k.a. Kitty (Brian Cournoyer). As fate would have—or the necessary ridiculousness for plot twists to come together—Gertrude’s hotel was just closed by the Nazis and the Baron Wilhelm Von Elsner (Troy Rudeseal) invites the two ladies to stay at his Schloss (castle). When the Baron arrives with his guests, he is surprised to discover that his mother (also Tom Briggs) and niece, the young sadist Lotte (Anna Gamel), are less-than impressed to be hosting Americans on the eve of war.
Shows that have drag as a central motif both suffer from and are buoyed up by cross-dressing. For some audiences this is still the piece that catches their attention, but, in reality, if the script and the performances of the whole cast do not hold up, it doesn’t matter how many men in wigs are onstage. Drag can be approached from many directions: There is the aspect of a man with five o’clock shadow and hairy chest falling down in high heels. There is a very over-the-top diva in clothing, jewelry and makeup that few woman have the time or energy to wear on a regular basis. And then there is an exploration of the human experience in a different shell. To some extent, this is what many actors say draws them to theatre in the first place: an opportunity to be someone else for a little while.
Busch has been quoted many times talking about how as a female impersonator he could be so much more than as the shy man he was in his real life. Certainly, we still live in a society that expects and allows for a greater breath of emotional expression by women than men: How often do you see men portrayed onstage, screaming in joy or crying? Though Domby is definitely enjoying his beautiful jewelry, all of it is secondary to his performance of this supremely self-involved woman and her personal journey of growth.
Briggs must also create two different women to portray: one is incredibly comedic and frail; the other, a study of German efficacy and strength filtered through a polite snobbishness. It is wonderful to see him onstage again—a rare treat for Wilmington audiences. The patheticness of his Rania Aldric is incredibly funny but also truly sympathy inspiring. Briggs nails the aging actress who truly needs help, but wants to prove she isn’t helpless. Still, she no longer knows how to get attention without being pathetic. It’s more complex than first meets the eye.
Then there is Brian Cournoyer, the sidekick along for a good time to remind Garnet who she really is and where she is really from. As the funny, less-glamorous side kick of ‘40’s movies, Cournoyer is there, complete with “Victory Curls” in his wig that defy gravity. Paula Lemme is the magic behind all the wigs, and her work is beyond description—just breathtaking.
All the performance really embrace the stylized, yet empathic nature of Busch’s work. Rudeseal plays a wonderful villain and his acolyte, the young Nazi Karl (Wesley Brown), made me jump every time he clicked his heals and saluted a “Heil Hitler.” Rudeseal is clearly enjoying playing the farce in “The Lady in Question.” He is the Gracie Allen of the show, taking everyone on faith at face-value and winding up the butt of all the jokes. If Rudeseal and Maasch (the stranger in a strange land) didn’t play it straight, the show wouldn’t be funny. They are the contrasts that sell it.
Like Gamel and Briggs, Bollinger pulls double duty: as Doktor Maximilian, a wannabe Josef Mengele, and Professir Mittelhoffer, a confused but kindly teacher. Perhaps Bollinger’s students at UNCW might not think the second is too much of a stretch, but the first is pretty sadistic and frightening.
The psychologically unbalanced young Lotte revels in torture chambers and already enjoys strangulation. She takes the cake, representing every hidden fear that the rest of us have in watching mean girls come to life and run amuck. Jjust like the mean girls, she has the adults in her life fooled. Gamel is an interesting actress to cast: She has lots of talent and she is beautiful, but her quirkiness lends to the offbeat androgyny hidden under her sexy exterior, and it’s surprising. As Lotte she gets to play a stylized child and a sadistic killer with the face of an angel.
The Blind Elephant is an interesting space for a show like this. Tightly packed with seats—and the bar open all through the show—it feels a lot like the old days at Bessie’s when Shelf Life and BUMP produced shows there. The drag element also plays well here, mixing with the vibe of underground theatre and alternative culture—much of what a speakeasy was meant to be in its heyday. As a bar, there are different challenges to overcome: It doesn’t have all the advantages of a full-scale lighting package that a theatre would have, and there are some spots (particularly next to the post) that are just dark. On the other hand, the existing staircase plays nicely as a set piece. It really is an interesting creative experiment. One thing is for certain: C’est la Guerre has a place in the Wilmington scene. It will be fascinating to see what they do next.
The Lady in Question
★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Blind Elephant, 21 N. Front St.
Fri-Sat, Sept. 26-27, 7:30 p.m.