It’s really difficult to know just how precisely to approach Off The Wall Theatre’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? On the surface, it’s just good, silly, campy humor. Over the course of the run of the show, local theater veterans Jeremy Welter and Mark Hagen take turns playing Betty Davis and Joan Crawford in a staged spoof of the classic 1962 movie. There’s nothing too complicated going on here. Look a little deeper and it gets really, really weird, though. It started out as a book. Then there was a film adaptation. Then a flurry of different stage adaptations. (Gutzman’s adaptation is...all his own...)
deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect.
Philip Core referred to camp as: “the lie that tells the truth.” Theatrical exaggerations broadcast emotional reality in garish amplifications which are more honest than any realistic portrayal. The camp had been driven into dramatic adaptations of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane from the first film. Davis and Crawford were playing theatrically exaggerated emotional mutations of themselves in a production which evidently did little to endear the two actresses to each other.
Gutzman’s treatment of the story is deliberately comic. It’s both a spoof of the movie and a light comedy that stands entirely on its own. You don’t have to know the movie to know the play...but the subject matter being given the comic treatment here is actually quite dark. Welter (or Hagen) plays--Blanche a wealthy, aging actress who is bound to a wheelchair. Hagen (or Welter) plays her sister Jane--an actress who hasn’t been nearly as successful. Jane is vicious to Blanche, who valiantly attempts to escape the domestic prison her sister presides over.
Exorcising Demons in a Sweaty, Little Box
So it’s a campy light comedy about unlawful human incarceration. It’s a comedy about a criminally sadistic reaction to jealousy and resentment. Overly-dramatic representations of the darker side of human behavior get a cackle and a crooked grin from a tiny, little stage in a hot and stuffy room packed with people. It’s almost comic just how ugly it all is. Exit into the relatively fresh air of a late summer evening in downtown Milwaukee and one is struck by the strange meta-comedy of it all. People are going to watch someone be truly cruel to another human being and...laugh at it because it’s a campy amplification.
We Are All Blanche (The Political Thing)
There’s interesting satirical symbolism here. Wheelchair-bound Blanche tries to be heroic as possible while being ruled over by an ugly, semi-psychotic narcissist with bad hair. This sounds VERY familiar given the current political climate. We are all Blanche. The first step to recovery is laughter. I think we’ve all accomplished that much. Let’s hope we’re all able to get on with things before we all end up dying on some weird existential beach that doesn’t actually exist as the lights fade on this tragic, tragic comedy.
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? runs through Aug. 27 at the cozy, little space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more visit Off The Wall online. A more coherent review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.