Stage Reviews: DTC’s ‘Arsenic & Old Lace,’ Uptown Players’ ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’

THINGS TO DO WITH A BANANA | Coarse but funny, ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’ forces its humor down your throat. There are worse things it could force down your throat.

Broad comedy

Pick your poison: Camp in sitcomland or two B’way pros hamming it up. Either way, you win

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There are two sets of Golden Girls trodding the boards this week — though of very different ilks.

In one corner, Dallas Theater Center’s star-powered Arsenic & Old Lace (with Broadway vets Tovah Feldshuh and Betty Buckley) turns the chestnut-roasted Depression-Era dark comedy into a hilariously overplayed farce. At the same time, Uptown Players, the usual Kalita residents, have hightailed it into the Rose Room for Thank You for Being a Friend, another of their drag-based parodies, this time skewering The Golden Girls.

On the surface, the two shows have little in common. For one, Arsenic is actually well-written. Joseph Kesselring’s play has become such an institution, it’s easy to forget how subversive and smart it can be even as it revels in a gimmick: That two sweet ol’ ladies are actually well-intentioned serial killers of lonely widowers. (Dexter owes it a huge debt.) Thank You is nowhere close to that in its construction. Its vulgarity can be acute even for the most adult tastes. (Bea, Rue and Estelle are probably rolling over in their graves; it might send Betty to hers.)

But they do share a lot, to wit: Masterful comic timing and the ability to take the material — about post-menopausal broads — into fun recesses of your humor cortex.

Feldshuh and Buckley play off each other nicely as sisters Abby and Martha, who slip poison into the elderberry wine of pensioners who have no family. Their nephew Mortimer (Lee Trull, rubbery and perpetually astonished) discovers their, umm, “personal business” and tries to work out a way to stop them and keep them from the gas chamber.

Feldshuh, responsible for more mugging than Central Park on New Year’s Eve, has a pixieish energy that’s impossible not to get caught up in, and Buckley’s dotty cluelessness is a hoot. They are matched for comic clarity by Nehal Joshi as a quack doctor and the impressively imposing Jason Douglas as a Karloff-like villain.

But as much as the cast, the real star is Anna Louizos’ magnificent set, a rotating behemoth of Addams Family formidability that is practically its own character. That makes three grandes dames who deserve a bow.

There are four ladies vying for attention in Thank You; we’ll call that one a draw as well. Riffing on Golden Girls — renamed Dorothea (a basso profundo Lon D. Barrera, who still doesn’t sound butch enough … kidding), Roz (Chris Robinson), Blanchet (Michael D. Moore) and Sophie (John de los Santos) — it’s a trifle sitcom plot about a “girls vs. the gays” talent competition against Lance Bass (Drew Kelly), crammed full of more sex jokes than you could shake a stick at. (There’s one they can use.)

Crass? Most definitely. But also surprisingly hilarious. It helps that the production is staged inside a gay bar, where the audience seems primed to have a camptastic time. But honestly, it’s the cast that elevates the material with fearless performances (how do they keep referring to their singing group, Vaginal Discharge, without cracking up?) and loads of stage business that overcomes the script’s many weaknesses.

Director B.J. Cleveland gives the parody elements (showtunes, Beyonce videos, Joan Crawford) their due and let’s everyone have fun with it. High art? Only if you toke one up beforehand. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but it’s not necessary. The laughs here are golden, girl.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Monster house

Gay haunted house expert Jim Shackelford says purveyors of fright make a game out of exploiting fears

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

MIND YOUR MANORS | Modern haunted houses like Thrillvania in Terrell depend more on invading your space then bloody gross-outs.
MIND YOUR MANORS | Modern haunted houses like Thrillvania in Terrell depend more on invading your space then bloody gross-outs.

First things first: I don’t scare easily. Minus serial killers, speed traps in Highland Park, Palin-Gingrich in 2012 and asking for a raise, there isn’t much that chills the bejeezus out of me — haunted houses included. (Oh, ghosts do frighten me.) So tracking down the occult funhouses for this story should be a cake walk.

But one local aficionado thinks I should be afraid. Very afraid.

“The 13th Street Morgue in Red Oak has a scary, intense vibe,” says Jim Shackelford, an expert on the quasi-paranormal venues that pop up like zombies from a cemetery every October. “Their actors are good at scaring the piss out of people. It’s the place I point people to when they ask for a really scary haunt recommendation. And there was a suicide and murder on the property.”

Wait, an actual murder? OK, I’m not so sure about that one — and I have no doubt that would be too much for anyone accompanying me. (Ahem.) So, for the protection of my friends and haunted housemates, we can bypass this one.

Shackelford is the go-to guy in Dallas for knowledge on the haunted house scene. He takes his appreciation of frights to a new level, along with his partner Jay Westerman, owner of Obscurities Tattoos and Piercing. The couple plans to open their own haunted house in the (very appropriate) year of 2013.

“I started doing scary stuff when I was 9 years old with my parents, so I’ve been interested in it forever,” he says. “I think for me it’s the creativity and the marrying of my professional background in interior design and Halloween.”

If only there were an actual gay haunted house. Imagine it: Meticulously designed, they’d have macabre drag queens, muscled-up executioners and rabid bears popping out from behind French doors and chenille curtains.

I tell Shackelford that haunted houses aren’t all that scary anymore. Thanks to a few tricks cultivated over the years, I can handle anything. For instance, if I’m in a group, I let everyone go first so when I hear screams, I know something is coming up. (See? It takes brains not to be scared — and desensitization.) Blood and gore are mandatory in every B-horror movie, and since the boyfriend and I watch too much torture porn as it is, seeing entrails and lopped-off heads is nuthin — give me a chainsaw-wielding masked man any day.

“Everybody’s afraid of something,” Shackelford says. “But that’s part of the problem: Hollywood is the competition. People are immune to the gory visuals so houses now rely on engaging people a bit more.”

He calls this the startle type. Haunted houses move into more subtle ways of freaking you out. This is not a good thing. If Christine O’Donnell comes after me in a witch hat wielding a burning Constitution, well, that might require diapers. But Shackelford says houses are preying on phobias and personal space and can spot a target with no problem.

“It’s the simplest thing sometimes,” he says. “They camouflage the walls and when you don’t see it, someone appears out of nowhere. That invasion of space freaks people out. The characters look for reactive people to prey on, so if you can, contain yourself.”

He tells me this like I’m the one who screams the most. Like I would be the most afraid. Clearly he is not familiar with my balls of steel.

“Oh and there are some intense hayrides out there,” he adds. “Thrillvania has a trail you hike. When it’s night time, in the middle of nowhere and creatures come from out of nowhere, that’s scary.”

Eeek!

Screams in Waxahachie creates an entire haunted village, but it’s meant to alarm more than cause you to wet yourself — they sell funnel cakes, after all. Thrillvania in Terrell is one of the best 3D attractions and has been featured on the DIY network. With haunted houses like that and Zombie Park in Arlington going high-tech with multimedia effects triggering the heebie-jeebies over outright scares, they are upping the bar on frights. Perhaps this year, I won’t bring mommy with me. You know, I don’t want her to get scared and all.

But perhaps the scariest part of all the haunted houses in the area is Reindeer Manor Abusement Park.

“The 13th Street Morgue is on one side of that park but it’s privately owned,” Shackelford says. “The other side is run by a Boy Scout troop.”

The horror! The horror!

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas