Bostonians have rightly come to appreciate the multifaceted gifts of the Gold Dust Orphans, a misfit troupe of drag performers (and their allies) who, led by their fierce den Momma Rose, Ryan Landry, churn out parody productions of well-known movies and plays at an enormously prolific rate – typically producing 2 or 3 shows a year at their home at the Machine Nightclub’s basement theatre on Boylston Street. The latest of their productions is Mildred Fierce, a hugely entertaining take on the mesmerizing 1945 Joan Crawford film vehicle that mixes all the noir intrigue of its source material with the many gifts of its talented leading lady, drag performer Varla Jean Merman.
When it comes to production values, the troupe’s constraints also prove to be its best assets. For Mildred Fierce, their wrap-around club stage has been adorned with handsome collages of iconic vintage movie promotional materials; the sets are simple and mostly of the 2D variety (economically produced by scenic designer Amelia Gossett), and Scott Martino’s costumes are simply ravishing (especially for Ms. Merman).
Both the movie Mildred Pierce and its parody tell the story of a woman who smothers her daughter Veda to the point of no return, resulting in a murder committed by – well, to give away the culprit would be to spoil the fun, both of the original movie and of Fierce‘s take. Mildred Fierce takes the film version of Pierce, which was a departure in and of itself from the novel by James M. Cain which formed its basis, to a whole other plane. Varla Jean Merman, who has mastered the integral drag technique of Sfinglish (speaking fierce English: my term), is the vibrant sun around which the other stellar Orphans orbit. From the moment she arrives on the scene in her oversized fur coat, she commands attention. Possessing of a natural singing talent – perhaps not of Broadway leading lady caliber but heads and tails above most drag performers — Merman also deftly navigates Landry’s variously assembled score, which borrows melodies and phrases from classic Broadway songs.
Though the men who portray Mildred’s husbands and suitors and the dancers who make up the chorus are all talented, they have the unfortunate task of being pitted against their drag costars, who can’t help but pull focus. The stature and build of the drag performers here make for a number of funny stage pictures; these queens, try though they might, are far from fishy (though Merman’s a lady through and through) but in defying the traditional notions of what a queen should look like they do the trick and then some. Drag parodies like this one provide the opportunity not just for entertainment (their surface purpose) but also for genderfuck critiques of their sources, serving up darker, funnier, even occasionally dangerous takes on the heightened femininity of classic Hollywood and on the archetypes that fuel genre cinema; the Gold Dust Orphans’ current show, much to their credit, is no exception.
Penny Champayne, a highlight in past Orphans productions, is a hysterical Veda; her over-the-top snooty invocations of the original film Veda, Ann Blyth, are spot-on. Also game is Olive Another, who’s exceedingly likable as Mildred’s plucky employer-cum-employee Ida. Liza Lott turns in a brief but memorable turn as the erratic actress who shares Veda’s dressing room when, at odds with her mother, she turns to show business, and Patty York’s take on the interrogating police officer as Bette Davis in uniform is side-splitting.
Landry’s script for the show succeeds so well because it trusts its source material enough to let the lines that landed on film speak for themselves, nearly verbatim. Where he tweaks the plot, he does so with intent and milks the story for its campier excesses. Mildred’s restaurant — called just “Mildred’s” in the film — is called “Mildred’s Pie Hole” here. And her endeavor of baking pies for Ida’s restaurant transforms into a chorus of dancers with pies in Landry’s re-imagining. Besides for scripting the show, Landry, an audience favorite, also takes on the roles of Mildred’s maid Butterball (based on Butterfly McQueen’s role, Lottie, in the film) — a hot-button casting choice that just barely avoids offending — and Veda’s icy mother-in-law, replete with a wide-brimmed goose-clad hat.
The Gold Dust Orphans are always worth seeing; past shows have included Pussy on the House, Phantom of the Oprah, Mary Poppers, Peter Pansy, Valet of the Dolls, and more. Their next show, Pornocchio, sounds particularly promising. The legendary wooden boy has a certain appendage that isn’t his nose and won’t stop growing. Until its brief run ends on March 17, though, their current show Mildred Fierce provides audiences the chance to see not only the troupe’s cohesive spirit in fine form but to witness the talents of Varla Jean Merman, who’s by far one of the finest (and, really, one of the only, given the preponderance of lip-syncers these days) triple-threat queens in the biz today. Varla’s ‘mommie dearest’ is mommie fiercest indeed, and audiences should have no trouble being swept away by the pure joy of this company’s infectiously reverent and irreverently infectious take on a classic film that really holds its own.
Read Richard Patterson’s interview with Sharon Needles