At ATW, 'Vampire Lesbians' Run Grandly Amok

So you're alone and undead in the world, your hometown having been destroyed by the wrath of God, with your appetite for fresh virgin blood eternally unsated. In Charles Busch's riotous campfest Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, it's only natural to resume a bloodsucking career as a glamorous 1920s silent movie star and a modern Las Vegas lounge diva…just good luck finding a virgin.

The Actors' Theatre of Washington is currently presenting Vampire Lesbians alongside Joe Orton's dark, dark comedy Ruffian on the Stair as an evening of one-acts aptly titled Tramps and Vamps. However, Ruffian turns out to be an under-spiced appetizer to a grandly filling entrée.

Not that Ruffian on the Stair is a bad play. On the contrary, Orton's satirical writing gleams like the blade of a brand-new razor. However, Matty Griffiths awkwardly juggles the plays tone, so that the full volume of Orton's puckishly caustic voice is only heard in spurts.

The play concerns a middle-aged couple named Joyce (Rosemary Regan) and Michael (John C. Bailey). A petty criminal and a reformed tart, they live their lives with a veneer of bourgeois civility cracked open by the arrival of a young hustler named Wilson (Ashely Ivey). Wilson--whose brother was recently run over--proceeds to threaten and stalk Joyce, and after convincing Michael that he means well, makes life decidedly uneasy for the man as well. As it turns out, both have a connection to the dead brother of Wilson, who, for all his flexible morals, is the most sympathetic of the three.

The play is billed in production notes as a "dark-comedy noir," and the play has elements of black comedy, psychological thriller and drama. Yet the one-act isn't particularly moving, holds only sporadic tension and is overall lacking in laughs. There are some hilarious lines too; during one rather unsavory sex scene, Joyce cries out "Not in front of the goldfish!," whom she cares about more than the dead young man in question. This is not a children's play; it's cynical, acidic stuff and Griffiths seems to be tiptoeing around this potential comic landmine, afraid to lose the tension and dramatic content. Emphasizing the humor of their actions might help the audience care more about these morally warped characters, if not necessarily for them; laughter can be a form of identification.

Regan has some affecting moments as Joyce, but excessively speaks her lines in a shrill yelp; her performance could benefit from more variety. Ivey lacks menace as the emotionally troubled hustler, whose feelings for his brother aren't entirely fraternal. Bailey gives the strongest performance of the three. His Michael is a quivering mass of abusive anger and wounded male pride.

After a somewhat dour first one-act, the second is pure camp frivolity. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom is a mix of Cecil B. DeMille epic, Hammer horror film, Vegas revue and Fire Island Halloween party. Directed with sprightly wickedness by Jeffrey Johnson, it's a delectable little show—even if it's too slight not to wear out its welcome a bit in the last few minutes or so.

Vampire Lesbians starts off in ancient Sodom, where a Virgin Sacrifice (a dragged-out Rick Hammerly) finds herself about to become food for the voracious Succubus (Nanna Ingvarsson, not dragged-out). Preferring vampiric lesbianism over death, the Sacrifice follows the Succubus to an even more decadent 20s Hollywood, where as Madeline Astarte, she steals the roles of DuBarry and Peter Pan—as well as young starlets—from the glamorous clutches of La Condesa (who has told one naïve starlet that "I shall film the story of…Sappho! I shall play…Sappho! You shall play her lesbian lover Rusty").

Of course, La Condesa is also an émigré from ancient Sodom, and after Madeline again evades death at the hands of a frumpy gossip columnist/vampire huntress, the two wind up in Vegas as, respectively, a star and a cleaning lady. Naturally, they end a millennia-old feud with the realization they need each other....but not before Madeline (in a towering pink beehive) has lip-synced with the ensemble through "Don't Tell Mama."

Although having two male divas in drag might have made the play even funnier, it works with stars of opposing genders. Hammerly, fluttering from dewy ingénue to pickled harridan, has unerring comic timing, and Ingvarsson, with her flashing eyes, smacking lips and extravagant gestures, is reminiscent of Bette Midler at her most flamboyantly self-mocking. Their funniest scene occurs in the Hollywood mansion, where the bitchy bickering reaches such Valley of the Dolls heights (or lows) that you almost expect one to rip off the wig of the other and threaten to flush it down a gold-plated toilet. The play is a drag-campGodzilla vs. Mothra.

For both plays, the sets of Greg Stevens and Brendon Vierra—which cleverly utilize a screen for projections—range from effectively tacky (in the 60s sense of the word) to delightfully gaudy. The same can be said of Stevens' costumes.

Ruffian on the Stairs may not be performed with quite as much panache as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, but by the end of the evening, it's hard not to feel at least somewhat gorged on theatre.

Photos by Ray Gniewek
1) John C. Bailey and Rosemary Regan in Ruffian on the Stair
2) Nana Ingvarsson in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
3) Rick Hammerley and ensemble in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom




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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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