Nobody spoofs classic movie genres better than Charles Busch.  On film, I’ve
loved his Psycho Beach Party (which as the title indicates spoofs at least two
genres at once) and Die Mommie Die (a brilliant takeoff on 50s/60s women’s
melodramas). Now I’ve had the chance to discover The Lady in Question,
Mr. Busch’s hilarious and spot-on send-up of 40s “woman in danger in Nazi
Germany” flicks.

Burlesque star turned classical concert pianist Gertrude Garnet (the “t” is
silent but wasn’t when she used to be Gertie Garnet) is touring Germany
with her wisecracking sidekick Kitty (alias the Countess de Borgia) when she
becomes involved with movie star handsome Professor Erik Maxwell. Erik’s
German actress mother Raina Aldric is being held captive by the Nazis in a
castle “looming darkly in the mountains,”  so naturally Gertrude and Erik do
their darnedest to set her free. Along the way they become involved with
the sinister Baron Wilhelm Von Elsner, his 6 foot tall niece Lotte, a young Nazi
named Karel, and Heidi, the anti-Nazi daughter of Professor Mittelhoffer.

Any Busch epic revolves around a strong female lead character (played by
a man, Mr. Busch being the originator of said characters). Whether a
production works or not depends on who is cast in this role. Fortuitously,
director Lilly Thomassian found the perfect leading lady/man in the person of
Ovation award winner R. Christofer Sands.  In his 40s perfect long red curls
and sophisticated mid-Atlantic speech, and wearing a succession of slinky,
gam-revealing gowns (kudos to designer Maro Parian), Sands gives a comic
tour de force performance as Gertrude, channeling Susan Hayward and
Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson in her “I’m ready for my close-up” mode.  

Fortunately, many in the cast (under Thomassian’s inventive direction and
doubtless inspired by Sands’ obvious understanding of the genre being
spoofed) rise to his level, especially Sarah Lilly as Gertrude’s tough cookie of a
best friend Kitty. Allan Poe is a deliciously icky Baron Von Elsner, Andrew Wolf
has loads of fun in drag as prepubescent Lotte (“I have never seen a man’s
wiener”), and Helen Duffy has a ball playing not one but two characters. As
Erik, Gertrude’s leading man and love interest, Zeff Zwillinger has a 40s movie
star looks and pencil thin moustache, and in his scenes with Sands really
catches fire and matches his co-star’s deliciously over-the-top brilliance.  
Bryan Neyer has fun playing Karel, Dale Sandlin playiing Professor Mittelhoffer
&Dr. Maximillian, and Justyna Kelley playing Heidi.

There are countless moments of inspired hilarity: virtuous Gertrude declaring,
“No one would dare invade my porthole,” wheelchair-bound Raina
struggling up the stairs (yes it is funny!), American characters consistently
pronouncing “escape” as “eschcape” (mimicking their German hosts),
Gertrude’s gorgeous gams contorting every which way when being
embraced by Erik, the Baron’s mother blowing one after another after
another smoke rings as the lights fade on her sinister face, and
Sands/Gertrude’s seemingly endless basking in adoring applause at curtain

Sound designers Shahen Hagobian and Ken Salzman up the camp quotient
with perfectly melodramatic 40s background music during and between
scenes, and occasionally punctuating dramatic moments with an uber-
emotional crescendo. Lighting designer Henrik Mansourian has lots of fun
with dramatic spotlights and fade-outs.

Sands and Thomassian make such a good team and understand this
material so well that one hopes that they will make The Lady in Question the
first in a series of productions from Mr. Busch’s oeuvre.  I for one am dying to
see what they come up with next! 

Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 2, 2007

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