As the lights come up to the sweet, plaintive strains of the song "Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte", a radio-controlled Tonka truck backhoe heads across the stage toward a dollhouse version of a Southern mansion. And that pretty much sets the tone for Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte, a drag take on the 1964 Bette Davis film, now camping out at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts for a limited run this weekend. It’s a scaled-down version of a classic film, loaded with sight gags.
When Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte came out, it was a suspenseful horror classic with some pretty scary elements for its time. It was also Bette Davis’ second outing as a deranged old woman after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. As sweet, addled Charlotte Hollis, Davis played more of a victim than her evil Baby Jane Hudson. Although like Baby Jane, Charlotte is a daddy’s girl, and a Southern belle with a secret that instigates a shocking murder followed by false accusations, unrequited love, dramatic speculations and blackmail. Great stuff!
Ricky Graham and Jeffery Roberson incorporated all of the movie’s classic, melodramatic moments into their show, and spiced them with plenty of silly, funny touches and dialogue rife with puns about hands, heads and pansies.
If someone were to do a movie about Bette Davis, they could do a whole lot worse than Graham’s sendup of the iconic big-screen diva. In his wig with the butt-length braids, Graham bears a striking resemblance to Davis in all her wide-eyed loony glory as the resident crazy. But the best part of Graham’s performance is the way he replicates Davis’ signature voice. He has her unusual speech patterns and word emphases down perfectly, as well as her pronunciations, like "paaah-ties," "caaaahr" and "ya aaaahr."
The second dead-on performance of the evening goes to the actor playing Velma, the mansion’s maid, played by Agnes Moorehead in the movie. It would be great to give this actor the credit he deserves for his fabulous physical comedy, grunts and growls, but there is no Shut Up Playbill, not even a list of credits to go by to tell who plays whom or who designed what. Anyway, great job, actor who plays Velma!
Cousin Miriam arrives in the form of Roberson’s drag persona, Varla Jean Merman, giving us a more buff, robust, well-endowed and hilarious Miriam than Olivia de Haviland’s demure and genteel screen version. Varla Jean’s Miriam is the perfect contrast to Graham’s ditzy Charlotte. Their car scene together is hilarious and one of the high points of the show. Varla Jean arrives packing plenty of boob—she could be the poster girl for the importance of support bras. Her colorful 1960s costumes and various hairstyles are also great counterpoints to Charlotte’s faded butt-bowed dresses—a point well made by Miriam in one of their first scenes together.
The remaining characters, Drew, Jewel Mayhew, the sheriff, the family lawyer and scandal-seeking photographers, are portrayed by a cast of four, Mark Meehan, Brooks Braselman, Yvette Hargis and Michael Sullivan. Hargis, the one actual woman in the cast, does double duty as the sheriff and Jewel Mayhew, and could also double as Kathy Najimy, especially when as the sheriff, she tells Mr. Wilkes he “shore has a purty mouth.”
Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte isn’t high art or particularly polished. The set isn’t elaborate or fancy, but works well as a run-down Louisiana mansion that, like its lady of the house, has seen better days. The show also capitalizes on the way musical underscoring was used in old movies, with a few appropriate diversions adding to the laughs. You don’t have to have seen Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte to have a good time, but if you have, you will appreciate the horror moments, and Graham’s performance as Davis as Charlotte, even more.
You can read an interview with Jeffery Roberson/Varla Jean Merman here.