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For Whom the Belle Tolls

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The drag movie stars are a kick: Ricky Graham, for instance, with his long blond braids and Jeffery Roberson (a.k.a. Varla Jean Merman) with her expressive -- not to say, gymnastic -- bosom. But Shut up! Sweet Charlotte, currently on the boards at Le Petit's second stage, is more scatterbrained (in the best sense of the word) than "drag" suggests. It's more like a trip to some decadent Southern gothic wonderland than to a Rampart Street gay bar. In fact, of course, the play is also a parody of Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the 1964 film starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.

The forlorn, confused Charlotte (Graham), moping in the bedroom of the now-derelict mansion that she grew up in, is as funny as you might expect. But hell goes decidedly a poppin' when a radio-controlled toy backhoe advances on a stately doll house. This represents, in miniature, the threat Charlotte is living under -- for the State of Louisiana had condemned her house to be demolished to make way for a new bridge. Charlotte counterattacks, however. She fires a big, old rifle at the foreman of the work crew, who tucks his backhoe under his arm in umbrage and goes to complain to the toothpick-chewin', good-old-boy sheriff (played by Yvette Hargis! Unless I misread the playbill).

Meanwhile, the sheriff chats with Harry Wills (Martin Covert), an investigator from Lloyds of London, who is looking into an old, unclaimed life insurance policy. All these themes intertwine, and you ain't heard nothin' yet! This family, like all self-respecting Southern gothic clans, has a skeleton in its closet. Well, not a skeleton, exactly. A corpse. A corpse missing its head and hands, the remains of a married man named John Mayhew, who was having an affair with Charlotte. The crime has never been solved. To make matters worse, John's ghost (Rod Lemaire) visits Charlotte at unexpected moments in the night and indulges in spookery, like playing a love song he wrote to her on the harpsichord.

The drama thickens with the arrival of cousin Miriam Deering (Roberson) wearing a suit skirt and a string of pearls. As a child, Miriam was taken in and raised by Charlotte's family after her own father died. She and Charlotte have moments of nostalgia about sliding down the banister and smoking their first cigarette. But a fortune is at stake (remember the life insurance) and for all the nostalgia, Miriam wants her cut -- or rather, doesn't want to cut it at all.

The dialogue and the antics are often hilarious. When the furious Charlotte complains that "they could put the damn bridge anywhere," the response is, "No, they had to build it to meet up with the road." But humor springs from surprise, and I don't want to give away too many punch lines.

Basically, what happens is that Miriam makes an unholy alliance with the family doctor (Jack Long) to get rid of Charlotte and grab the inheritance. One of the first steps is to fire the faithful family retainer Velma (Brian Peterson). As it turns out, part of the mystery of the crime lies hidden with the murdered man's wife, Jewel (Yvette Hargis, once again).

Whew! What a potent, poisonous brew! Who would have thought that Southern gothic would be our story?

In brief: Shut up! Sweet Charlotte is a well-crafted, well-performed and tonic piece of nonsense.

Cecile Casey Covert's costumes are spot-on and the fittings must have been a comedy in themselves. A special tip of the hat to Varla Jean Merman (who sometimes shares an identity with a guy named Jeffery Roberson). Merman co-wrote the script with Matthew Martin, co-designed the set with Allen Cutler, and directed the show.

A quick update on another Southern gothic tale: Leo Jones (well known from his work at the NORD theater) planned to run his production of Dream Girls at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, but -- due to some sort of dispute -- the musical closed after opening night. Recently, Jones reassembled the cast for a weekend at John McDonogh High School Auditorium. I heard enthusiastic reports from reliable sources. Now, Jones and his itinerant players are looking for place to do a full-length run.

Miriam (Jeffery Roberson, center) has come to help - Charlotte (Ricky Graham, right) cope with a skeleton found - in her closet and to relieve her of a large fortune.
  • Miriam (Jeffery Roberson, center) has come to help Charlotte (Ricky Graham, right) cope with a skeleton found in her closet and to relieve her of a large fortune.
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