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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Campy Classic

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Next week, Spiral Theatre opens its final show in Milwaukee as Artistic Director Mark Hooker stars in a production of Charles Busch's comic-drama Die, Mommie, Die!

Busch's cult favorite is a tribute to the aging film divas of the 1960s. The Spiral production will feature Hooker as Angela, a fading singer who murders her movie-director husband with a poisoned suppository (those unfamiliar with the play can probably imagine the results).

The humor in Busch's comedy comes from its sheer campy style. But successful camp relies on the attitudes of performers and audience members. Busch's own stage and screen productions of Die, Mommie, Die! approached the story with an earnest exaggeration that openly embraced the show's humor, but what happens when you play camp with a serious voice? This is precisely what Hooker, who also directs the show, will be exploring with his staging of the play.

"I'm directing it as if it's a straight play," Hooker says. "I'm having everybody say the words and not add any layers."

Whereas Busch's stylistic inspirations for the original production were the inadvertently comic '60s films of Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, Hooker seems more fascinated with the story's serious, darker end of human emotion. Hooker says he intends to explore the very real, tragic aspects of the production.

It is a bit odd, however, hearing Hooker reference ancient Greek tragedies when discussing a play that features murder by "a suppository the size of a candle, laced with arsenic." Audiences are usually willing to go with the mood of a piece: In playing comedy serious, Hooker is running the risk of having comedy be serious. What if the audience's reaction is silence? "If that happens," Hooker says, "we'll have emergency rehearsals from the moment the curtain goes down until the next day. I think that Charles Busch is such a good writer that the words themselves are funny."

Die, Mommie, Die! runs March 20-29 at Plymouth Church on East Hampshire Avenue, after which Hooker and Spiral Theatre producer Dave Berg will be moving to Spiral's new home in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

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