When Baby Jane reaches puberty, her talent drains away leaving only a hollow scorched-Earth of a face with black eyelashes, like hands waving, wrinkles under wrinkles, a tuft of white wig dinged yellow by cigarettes and gin fumes, and a big red ugly mouth from which nothing but venom extrudes. The parents drop dead. Meanwhile, Blanche becomes a big movie star. Remembering her mother's words, she designs an exclusive contract that states for any movie she is cast in, her horror-show sister must also have a role. The studio execs love Blanche, but they can't stomach Baby Jane stinking up the pictures.
In time, the glory days are all over and we find ourselves in a looming Grey-Gardens-stye mansion in the dust and decay of starlet retirement. There has been an accident. Seems Baby Jane "accidentally" ran her little sister down while trying to park the Continental Classic. She parked it on her legs. Blanche is now completely dependent, in a wheel chair, and under 24-hour care by Baby Jane (presently a decrepit alcoholic smoking train-wreck in white pancake makeup, wearing an adult version of her ancient Baby Jane period dress), and there is also a maid-for-hire who comes in to occasionally dust the place and worry.
Side Note: Stephen King, you know you wrote Misery based on this picture. You just know you did.
I'm not telling any more. Now, the play:
The Set: From the distressed wallpaper, the extraordinary centerpiece French divan, textures of the floor, the upstairs bedroom (for which the HIPP sacrificed 12 seats, with near 30 more which the HIPP reluctantly sells at a reduced rate), this set is one of the best in Hippodrome history. Perfectly efficient, but rich with detail, you are sitting in the haunted head-space of the classic film. You can smell the gloom, and the effect is bone-chilling. (Set design by Mihai Ciupe, properties by Tim J. Dygert.)
The Lighting: Film Director Lynch said of black and white, "Black and white is so pure. And because it's pure, everything is heightened in a way. It just has more power." (Lighting Design by Robert P. Robbins). This play is in black and white. I'm told by the designer himself, there are no gels. Shades of gray. Shadow. Only in rare instances are there highly specific jolts of red that come in moments of fear and terror like poison darts. There are also projections (Mihai Ciupe again); half faces, partial memories, fragments of emotion, all serving to heighten the already heightened sense of cognitive dissonance provided by the lighting and set; a psychological labyrinth which the audience shares with the two aged stars.
The Acting: I did not see any acting. People don't act in your nightmares. They just exist and endure. All fine craft across the board, especially in consideration of those playing multiple roles. Niall McGinty, eerie and effective as Baby Jane's daddy; I say 'eerie' because the whole opening montage plays more than homage to the film--almost as if we are transported back into time and inserted into the celluloid itself, into the very audience of the day enduring Baby Jane's ear-scorching act for an afternoon's entertainment, with her father pitching those creep show dolls that contemporary kids would be more apt to have exorcised than to ever play with. Joined by actor Logan Wolfe, Niall and he become two become cigar-munching bigwigs of the Hollywood Studio system, reviling in the wretchedness that is Baby Jane's midlife film performances, dragged across the pavement shrieking by-and-in the shadow of her now more talented sister film star. Logan and Niall also play cops, and bank teller & customer. Their versatility illuminates a solid backdrop of believable persons inhabiting the world.
Likewise excellence with the ever-engaging Sara Morsey as nosy neighbor and Blanche Hudson super-fan, Mrs Bates. Then later, as Edwin Flagg's English mother, Morsey the actor is virtually unrecognizable.
Madeline Smyth and Christine Robinson are absolutely fantastic as little BJ and little Blanche, respectively, and portray their characters as the two creepiest children since the Shining twins. They function both as physical and psychological characters, and you will be waking up with a cold sweat some time in the future having seen their haunting in this production. Kudos also for Robinson's portrayal of Abby, Mrs. Bates' 60s-style hipster daughter.
Maya Handa Naff brings the compassion and some kind of moral center to the proceedings as the concerned house-cleaner. There is one short unnecessary & unmotivated comic bit involving a staged struggle on the floor--the only gag in the show that completely flat-lined. But aside from that singular trifle, Naff is able to convey both the concern of a subservient, but then the strength of a determined hapless heroine on the turn of a dime. Her solid performance manages to center and balance the entire show, as well as provide one of several shocking climaxes, all leading to the mind-warping conclusion.
Mark Chambers composes an understated but profoundly moving portrait of Blanche Hudson. This actor's challenge is to bring the truth of the story in a compelling manner while confined by both a small room, stage-left, and all in a wheelchair. Any time that wheelchair rolled anywhere near the stairs, my balls tingled with fear. Real fear, mind you. Yes, there are some frightfully funny moments of comedy, parody, and homage to the 1962 film, and Chambers makes the most of them. Frankly, I've never laughed so hard in recent memory than I have in this production. But though this production is a self-described black comedy, actually the play falls into a kind of sincere and stoic complexity, layered with subtext and nuances. And what one realizes is that Chambers is allowing Bryan Mercer to be the star, right up until a point of singularity is reached in a most astonishingly poignant confession.
I am reminded, speaking of stars--and in this production, let's be honest, there are really only two of them in the center ring for the grand battle of all bitches--that two stars in the same constellation may in fact be light years apart. This idea is at the heart of the play. When Chambers as Blanche, beyond the fight and long past flight, delivers her final seaside parlance, the stage is set for one of the most heart-wrenching moments ever played on the HIPP's thrust stage. As much fun I had throughout--parts scary, occasionally camp, moments of humor, moments of pathos, the crushing finale left me rapt in real-deal tears, yes, which transformed into a full body and soul release when the lights came up, and then finally a palpable joy for what I had just experienced.
Viciously dominating the proceedings, as one would expect, is all Bryan Mercer--the Mercurial Ocala -- what? -- Ocala -- WHAT? -- OCALA!!!-native who is as good a stage actor as is possible in the entirety of the art. He is Bette Davis, he is Baby Jane Hudson--adult monster, and yet he is entirely her own authentic self. I do not mean to gender-bend you. This is not a drag show, nor is this some cheap gimmick, casting role-reversal among the leads. During the play, we do not question anything at all but the motives of the characters, the heartbreak of lost childhood, the terror that fuels any good humor, and the humor that fuels any good evil. Oh, the things that, in time, can never be undone! The casting of the leads is beyond any matter of social parameters, it is a matter of only one thing: truth, and a damn fine story. Okay, two things. Mercer is so completely committed to the role that if you look carefully enough, you will see the whole of Baby Jane in even the slight flicks of his painted nails.
Between Chambers' and Mercer's work, supported exquisitely by the rest of the ensemble cast, they don't just chew scenery, they eat the whole screaming play!
A final treat in this production is an epochal turn, by Jake Lesh, of the least understood but most significant sideshow Baby-Jane character, Edwin Flagg. Flagg is a drunk, unkempt loser who happens to play some solid piano. He can't get steady work to save his or his mother's life, but maybe being the accompanist for the new Baby Jane show will be just the ticket to glory he's been waiting for. Lesh has impeccable comic timing, a kind of master silliness. He pushes bigger and farther than others would dare, but manages to stop just shy of a cartoon. From the fat of Flagg's frumpish body pressed hard into his ill-fitting second-hand suit, we see a Pillsbury Crescent Roll container about to explode; comes with living hairpiece that makes Donald Trump's pumpkin-mop look perfectly normal. Yet with all that in play, Lesh's comedic sensibilities are not derived from slapstick. Rather, they are loaded with the futility of Flagg's pathetic dreams: What if I could get a washed up old movie star's money by pretending to like her? The Piano playing will be extra! Jake Lesh's comedy comes borne of pain, and that is how comedy works. Jake does not play for laughs, laughs play for him. Come on, folks, Flagg lives with his mother, for Christ's sake! If he does poorly, she'll do worse. And he does, and she does. Jake elicits for the audience, in the most astonishing way, a genuine pity and a genuine character. You will remember Lesh's Edwin Flagg.
The Sound: (Sound design by Amanda Yanes) We can say the sound is its own diabolical character in the play. By turns, shrill, loud, stunning, and sometimes gently moving, it seems to ooze out from the walls, or suddenly jump out from the darkness. The elements of the sound design stand before a mirror. They move their right hand, the reflection doesn't move its hand in return. We start to wonder, is it the mirror or is it me? The sound teases and torments, and the notes of I've Written a Letter to Daddy go from childhood innocence to adult dread before you can say What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.
The Costumes: (Costumes by Jessica Nilacala Kreitzer, design consultant, Marilyn A. Wall) The costumes are perfect, from top to bottom. I can't add much more to 'perfect'.
The Director: (Directed by Lauren Warhol Caldwell) Well what can I say, this play is a knockout! When a perfect marriage of Lauren Warhol Caldwell's artistic flourishes combine with a remarkable cast fully immersed in and committed to the world of the play, one cannot do better. I dare say that in the company of the HIPP's last greatest Halloween play, the quirky psychological Alice (2006), Baby Jane shares the top tier, and is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Do not miss it. See it twice or more. Bring friends. Spread the word. Everything theatre is supposed to be and do resides in this dark and murky haunted house. And all it needs is you.
Enjoy your dinner.
-- Tom Miller
MORE: From the Gainesville Sun
Special thanks to Jessica Hurov and Lizzi Nehls for being so cool to me.
This review is dedicated to Rusty Salling.