What a difference two years can make. It has been that long (that short, really) since the Sol Theatre of Fort Lauderdale made its debut with a lively but rather shallow production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, an opening gambit that was brave if overly ambitious. Since then, the Sol has been on a three-pronged quest -- to find a company identity, to improve the quality of its productions, and to attract an audience that approves of both.
Artistic Director Robert Hooker has stuck close to the Sol's "lounge theater" premise, promoting his shows as casual entertainments. At this theater, theatricality has always had the upper hand over dramatic power, and there's a cheeky subversive quality to the Sol crew, as if to say, "We don't take ourselves seriously, and neither should you." Meanwhile, however, what began as a rickety unsure group of tyro actors shows clear signs of more confidence and skill. As evidence, flash-forward to the Sol's new season opener, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
Charles Busch's modern classic of camp starts off in Biblical Sodom, where the drag act Virgin Sacrifice (the towering Daivd Tarryn-Grae) is about to be sucked dry by a rapacious Succubus (Kala Kaminsky). The Succubus succeeds in her quest only to turn her victim into a rival vengeful vampire. This feud carries on into Hollywood in the 1920s, where the vampire lesbians are rival movie queens who want to put the bite on a beautiful bit player. The rivalry continues into modern-day Las Vegas, as the battling vamps square off in a backstage showdown. The plotting is deliberately flimsy, a mere excuse to trot out a series of camp characters spouting clever arch dialogue. Busch, who has penned such plays as Psycho Beach Party and Pardon My Inquisition or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets is an irredeemable punster and double-entendre artist who drops in an astounding number of obvious sex jokes intermingled with in-joke show-biz and classic references. One of the Hollywood divas is called Madeleine Astarte, Astarte being the goddess of love and war to the biblical Canaanites. Got that? Never mind -- you don't need to. The next joke will arrive in approximately 20 seconds.
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Vampire Lesbians started life in 1984 as a late-night one-weekend show in the East Village of New York and ended up running for five years at the Provincetown Playhouse, becoming one of the longest-running shows in off-Broadway history. In the process, it moved, as did gay culture, from a marginalized outlaw status to a more general social acceptance. Now, almost 20 years since its inception, its shock value has lessened, but its comedic value endures. This seemingly informal play is completely dependent on style, as demanding as Noel Coward or commedia dell'arte.
In this, the Sol crew fares pretty darn well, despite the lack of much prior professional experience overall. Kala Kaminsky sets the standard as the droll whiskey-voiced Succubus. Kaminsky's got a lock on the play's arch humor and uses her considerable vocal skills, a rarity among South Florida actors, to fine comedic effect. Tarryn-Grae also scores as Kaminsky's nemesis, though he tends to hammer home some of the sex jokes when a mere bat of an eyelash would do. The same applies to the rest of the vigorous cast, which tends to approach the show's campy silliness as a license for imprecision. Still, the company is winsome and talented. Jeffrey D. Holmes is a stitch as a Hedda Hopper-like gossip columnist, Michael Burch does well as a film star and a pissy dancer, and Jim Gibbons delivers solid support as a serial killer turned butler.
Hooker directs with his customary sky-rocket style -- the pace is quick, the acting is broad and physical, and the whole show appears on the verge of cartwheeling into the stratosphere. Like Marisol, the Sol's hit earlier this summer, Vampire Lesbians feels like a carnival out of control, a signature touch from Hooker, who (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) hails from New Orleans and Mardi Gras country. The production style is also vintage Sol -- next to no set and minimal lights but some effective sound and music and really striking costumes and makeup. The result is a fizzy feel-good show, a nice way to send off the summer and another step in Sol's progress as a company. If you haven't yet caught this band of "merry Solsters," as they call themselves, Vampire Lesbians is as good an excuse as any.
One last note: Fans of Charles Busch will be pleased to hear that his recent New York hit, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, will open the fall season at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Busch also wrote the book for the upcoming Broadway musical Taboo! with music by Boy George.