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Since it established permanent residency in our collective cultural brain-vault, The Silence of the Lambs — the famous thriller about cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter — has seen its share of parodies, from musical theater (Silence! The Musical) to porn to a Funny or Die! spoof.
But there's always room for one more skewering. After all, in none of these will you find Thomas Harris' novel dramatized as a 75-minute comedy performed entirely by three men, two of them frequently in drag. That's the concept in The Silence of the Clams, a 2007 satire from Las Vegas-based playwright/actor Jamie Morris, which opens Friday for a two-weekend engagement at Empire Stage.
The venue is no stranger to Morris' work, having successfully mounted two of his plays, both of which have pop-cultural source material: Mommie Queerest, inspired by the 1981 camp classic about Joan Crawford; and The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, which turned the antiseptic '80s sitcom into a song-and-dance bordello. His latest piece, which just premiered in Dallas, targets another sitcom staple: It's called Re-Designing Women.
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"I love taking the source material that we hold near and dear, especially gay audiences," says Morris. "But I found that with The Facts of Life and especially The Silence of the Lambs that it's open to everyone who remembers the sitcom and the movie. It's a lot of fun to take it and twist it and make it my own. With Lambs, it was a little intimidating, because it's one of the great films, and it won the top five Oscars that year."
To prepare, he rewatched the movie and pored over the screenplay, careful to retain the iconic scenes and dialogue. In Morris' treatment, the politician's daughter is stuck in a well, only this time it's Alexandra Pelosi, and President Obama and Anderson Cooper figure into the action as well. Clarice Startling will seek help from Hannibal Lichter; Morris himself will play the eloquent cannibal. Buffalo Bill has been replaced by Beaver Bob, so named because he skins his female victims in a certain part of their anatomy (and it's far from the only vaginal euphemism that turns up in the play).
"If people are offended, it's still a reaction," he says. "I know I'm pushing buttons in these plays. Some of the humor is a little raunchy. It's like Joan Rivers — nobody escapes."
For Morris, an actor working in Broadway publicity when he developed the idea for Mommie Queerest in 2003, he never expected his niche to be campy, drag-driven satires. So far, the formula has worked, attracting even audiences that don't often find themselves lining up for season tickets at regional theaters.
"In Vegas, when we did the show, we had people in their 30s who had never been to a play," Morris says. "It just baffled me. I'm like, 'Well, you should probably see something legit as well. But I'm glad you came and had fun.' I know what I'm writing. It's silly escapism — let's all laugh and forget about our lives for an hour and a half."