Bette Davis/Barbara Stanwyck and Agamemnon: A Talk with Mark Hooker
After a number of years in Milwaukee, most recently as Artistic Director of Spiral Theatre Company, Mark Hooker is leaving for the twin cities. Before he does so, he will be starring in his final production in Milwaukee—Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die! I spoke with him about the comedy a few weeks back.
Me: Do you have a history with [Die Mommie Die]?
Mark Hooker: No. I’ve always admired Charles Busch so much. And I thought it would be a challenge to play a lady’s role. I’ve never done it before. And [Charles Busch] always insists he’s not a drag queen—he’s an actor who happens to play lady’s roles. And however much truth there to that there is or isn’t, I thought it was an interesting concept--to play a role and . . . you can’t not be a little bit campy with his words, but I was wondering what it’d be like to not try to add anything to it at all. So I’m having an experiment: I’m directing it as if it’s a straight play. I’m having everybody say the words and not add any layers.
Me: So you’re directing it like a straight-ahead drama.
Mark: Like a Bettie Davis movie.
Me: [laugh] Some of the plot elements are quite obviously campy.
Mark: Right. You know . . . it’s such a mixture of that Agamemnon trilogy the fall of the house of Atreus . . . and there’s two Bette Davis movies that it’s based on. One of them she killed her twin sister in. She did one when she was very young and one when she was much older and so there’s a lot of elements from that in here. And those movies are funny too.
Me: But they made those movies to be serious. (Presumably)
Mark: Yeah, but there are elements in here from Greek tragedy. There are elements from Bette Davis movies. There’s even a few moments from Susan Hayward and other old movies like that . . . sort of icon women who sort of . . . have a way of speaking . . . very Barbara Stanwyck. And I thought . . . wouldn’t it be interesting to just place ourselves in the 1950’s - ‘60’s and try to have the sensibility of actors from that time. We don’t act like that anymore as people or as actors. So I’m wondering what will happen. So I’m wondering what will happen.
Me: [laugh] ‘cause . . . thinking back, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything that Spiral had done that was straight ahead comedy.
Mark: Right. I don’t think that we’ve ever done straight-ahead comedy before. Even You Should Be o Lucky, which was Charles Busch had very grotesque elements. As does THIS show.
Me: . . . and judging from what I’d seen of [Busch’s] movie [version,] he was toungue-in-cheek on [Die Mommie Die!]
Mark: He WAS. And I’m playing it a little bit differently. And I talked to [Charles Busch] about this and he said straight-on that there’s no reason to imitate him when doing it, so y’know . . . you don’t have to have the red hair if you look better as a blonde, that’s fine. [Busch was basing his performance on Bette Davis] but for me, I’m basing myself a little bit more on Barbara Stanwyck. Sort of a strong, silent . . . and then, of course, I’m reading the script and I’m realizing that everybody in the play is funny and everybody else ha these hysterical lines and she’s sort of the one taking everything very seriously. And it’s just something that I wanted to try to do and we’ll see what happens with it. There’s no point in doing it (when it’s been done in this town before) if you’re just going to imitate either Charles or the way someone else did it. So my challenge as a director is to see if it’s funny letting the vinyl speak for itself.
More with Mark Hooker tomorrow . . . as he discusses the danger of taking comedy seriously and more.
The Spiral Theatre production of Die Mommie Die! Runs March 20th through 29th at the Plymouth Church on 2717 E. Hampshire Blvd.