In his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Charles Busch refers to Sodom and Gomorrah as “the Twin Cities.” His Die, Mommie, Die features a scene in which two kids coax a confession out of their mother by lacing her drink with LSD. Marta Towers, a central figure in his Red Scare at Sunset, has “had more Russians in her than the Kremlin.” Either there's some serious misogyny going on here or the Theater of Cruelty is back in vogue (Vampire Lesbians, after all, ran for five years off-Broadway, and Die, Mommie, Die was eventually made into a movie, in which Busch starred).Actually, neither is true, and there's no mystery behind Busch's taste for the diabolical. The fact is that nearly 25 years ago, he simply found a formula for success and ran with it. His drag character Mary Dale is a staple among his cult following, which totally gets off on his campy send-ups of classic movie genres. He's also created any number of figures—mostly women—who take their cues from the unattainable glamour-pusses of mid-20th-century film (it's said he'd become an unofficial expert on the work of Ida Lupino by the time he was 12).
Now comes his The Third Story, a current La Jolla Playhouse world premiere about a mother-son screenwriting duo and the fairytale that may have inspired their script. Busch plays female mob boss Queenie Bartlett and the fairytale's witch Baba Yaga, but it's a cinch that shock value drives neither character. Busch is a female impersonator by trade only—the girls he plays are literally a reflection of his devotion to family.
“It's only in the last few years,” Busch told CityBeat, “that I realized that the women I play were influenced by the women who raised me. I was raised by my mother and my aunts. They were women of a sort of embattled nobility, and the characters I play celebrate them as well as the stars [of the 1940s and '50s].” The resulting refinement, he added, is likely the source of his appeal.
Busch, 54, is a one-man franchise amid a boatload of plays, films and awards and even a book—but like some of his creations, he's copped to the wanderlust that's taken him 3,000 miles from his New York birthplace.
“In New York,” he explained, “it becomes very difficult to work under such a microscope. I just thought it would be a very good experience for me to do a play in a more nurturing environment.” The Playhouse was the right fit, he said, amid its reputation as a giant among regional theaters and its breezy West Coast locale.
It may be an equally good fit for Busch devotees. Artistic director Christopher Ashley has gotten off to a very good start in bringing a certain hipness factor to bear at the Playhouse—and The Third Story is the kind of vehicle that appeals accordingly.The Third Story runs through Oct 19 at the Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. $36-$62. 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.
The drugs of summer: Congress and the media have regurgitated professional baseball's drug scandals ad nauseam—but those entities have nothing on the athletes whose actions caused the flaps. Heck, there's even a play about it, called Back Back Back, which centers on three guys making their way in a world too competitive to rely on the raw talents of its stars. In time, the teammates battle for their careers and legacies and for the future of America's favorite pastime. The show is playing in previews and opens Thursday, Sept. 25, at the Old Globe Theatre's Arena Stage, 1450 El Prado in Balboa Park. www.oldglobe.org, 619-23-GLOBE.
Body double: An American soldier killed in Iraq is back from the otherworld (sort of) and lives at his widow Kelly's apartment. Peter's a ringer for his dead identical twin brother Craig, a Harvard grad student whose passions about the war sent him to his final destination. He's shown up at Kelly's door, up to here in anecdotes about Craig and the need to connect with Kelly in order to understand his brother's death. Dying City is playing in previews and opens Saturday, Sept. 27, at Cygnet Theatre's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. www.cygnettheatre.com, 619-337-1525.
If it ain't broke: Playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) literally went around in a circle to write her last script. Her research took her all over the world as she interviewed scores of women on their body images; she found that most of 'em detested at least some little something about their physiques. She's put the results on the stage in a very good show called The Good Body, designed to reassure women that they're perfect even with their self-perceived flaws. The show plays through Sunday, Sept. 28, at The Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. www.sdrep.org, 619-544-1000.
Another mess: Love is about to rear its ugly head—and gay Arnie is standing squarely in the way. His hometown of Toad Lake bites wad, and he'd give anything to escape to the Great White Way for a stage career; sure enough, a New York company gets stranded in town, and Arnie stages a one-man media campaign for himself. Little did he know he'd fall for one of the troupe; littler still does he realize that another group member has the hots for him. It's all in the world premiere of Backwater Blues, which opens Sunday, Oct. 26, at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. www.compasstheatre.com, 619-688-9210.
Seeing the light: It's 1953, and Margaret is on an Italian hiatus with her daughter Clara. They get off on the art, the architecture, and all-enveloping romance of their surroundings (if you were from North Carolina, so would you). Both women wax romantic in their own ways—but a secret they carry may prevent young love from blossoming, and they'll soon make a series of life-changing discoveries about love, identity, holding on and letting go. The Light in the Piazza runs through Sunday, Nov. 2, at Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. www.lambsplayers.org, 619-437-0600.