Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
WEDNESDAY WAS A sore throat. Thursday, a dull body ache with rumors of low-grade fever. My amiga, G, had had a painful left sinus since Monday, and I apportioned infection-blame accordingly. Friday, I got dizzy. That night at the theater, I tripped over my own foot and felt faint whenever my head deviated over 15 degrees from its vertical axis. Fluid sloshed in tides through my aural channels. I had the spins whenever I closed my eyes. Nothing looked quite right.
This mild case of vertigo was only exacerbated by the latest comic grotesquery of the Mary Worth Theatre Company, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Adapted from the spooky 1962 film starring a surprisingly sympathetic Joan Crawford and a ghastly Bette Davis, this Baby Jane sends a lurid story off to camp, where it spins far from any known axis of upstanding theater.
In 1917, bratty Baby Jane Hudson (Michelle Hutchinson) plays Peoria. A popular child star, Baby Jane domineers her family while supporting them on the vaudeville tour. Blanche (Lorna Landvik), an ugly duckling with latent swan potential, resents her resulting serf status. Baby Jane sings a treacly song, then Daddy dearest merchandises a Baby Jane blow-up doll. Blanche blanches, swearing vengeance.
We skip forward a dozen years to land in Hollywood. A helmeted Erich Von Stroheim figure (complete with punctuating whip) complains that the studio must produce sputtering vehicles for the has-been sister of movie star Blanche Hudson. Reversal of fortune! Next we go to the videotape (created by Rich "Doc Sphincter" Kronfeld): In a miniaturized doll segment--set amid slanted scenery reminiscent of a German expressionist film--Baby Jane unhitches a wagon on a hill. The camera cuts from the frantic scurrying of doll legs to the careening wagon. Blanche is bowled over, legs shattered. A closeup of the gaping mouth of the Baby Jane blow-up doll.
The story shifts to a trailer home parked at a drive-in movie theater. Having replaced tinseltown with a tinsel wig, Blanche watches a retrospective of her oeuvre on the drive-in screen; now confined to a wheelchair, her cotton-stuffed panty-hose legs have the edematous appearance of the shut-in. Meanwhile, much booze and bitterness have fermented Baby Jane's treacle; she gives off a rotting stench of dementia now. After she catches word of Blanche's plan to sell the trailer and institutionalize her, she intercepts and discards her sister's fan mail. Bars go up on the trailer windows; the maid is dismissed. Baby Jane barbecues Blanche's parakeet and serves it to her for lunch. Determined to resuscitate the corpse of her childhood stardom, Baby Jane hires Edwin Flagg (Kenton Holden), a shiftless accompanist. They make unappetizing kissy-faces. Blanche, a hostage in her own trailer home, begins to starve as sibling rivalry yields to psychopathy. A big surprise at the ending that I won't even begin to give away here.
Audiences familiar with the high-trash aesthetic of Mary Worth creators Joel Sass and Jeffrey Towne (whose previous hijinks include Valley of the Dolls and Lunatic Cellmates) might be surprised at how much of Baby Jane's derangement comes unadulterated from the film. Much of the dialogue has been copied verbatim; the macabre plot--right down to the BBQ-flavor bird--is fairly faithful to the original, as well. Even Baby Jane's finger-paint make-up job resembles Bette Davis's cadaverous clown mask. But as the film's chief assets are its engrossing performances and creepy sensibility (neither of which compares unfavorably to Sunset Boulevard), one senses that a measure of self-awareness has already been inscribed into this text, inoculating it against the parasite of meaningful parody. Baby Jane Unplugged, then, settles for being something of an exercise in tonal adjustment.
Still, exercise is rarely this entertaining. Team Mary Worth are low-budget masters of mise-en-scène; theirs is a talent of composite detail. The trailer, one of only two set pieces on the cramped Bryant-Lake Bowl pseudo-stage, handily rotates from an exterior to an interior view. Each prop serves a purpose, from the toy piano to the puppet parakeet. One admires Mary Worth's singular willingness to search for avant-garde inspiration on American shores--vaudeville, B-movies, and burlesque--and audiences respond enthusiastically.
Yet while this production of Baby Jane needs no correction (with the possible exception of a few lewd lines that fall flat), its creators would do well not to mistake the skillful micromanagement of sight gags for substance. Late last year, Mary Worth Artistic Director Joel Sass expressed a desire to expand the company's artistic mission. Indeed, the next scheduled production, Venus in Furs, is described in the program as their first "serious drama." Yet for now, Mary Worth's habit of making strangely scaled props--a phone and a piano are the same size--might serve as broader metaphor: Sass and Towne have applied abundant skill to a somewhat minor task. CP
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? runs through March 31 at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater; call 825-8949.