Celebrity Catfight at Renaissance Theaterworks
Let us begin by sorting out the layers in Don Nigro’s Gorgons, the theatrical roman à clef Renaissance Theaterworks opened Friday night.
The two characters, Ruth and Mildred, stand for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. Good to know, as this isn’t always apparent; Jennifer Rupp (Ruth/Joan) bears some slight resemblance to Davis, while Marcella Kearns (Mildred/Bette) favors Crawford.
With me so far? It gets more complicated.
The aging stars, down on their luck, harbor a mutual hatred that goes back decades. Rupp/Ruth/Joan convinces Kearns/Mildred/Bette to bury the hatchet long enough to film Gorgons, a gothic tale of two hateful, aged sisters. Gorgons of course stands for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In that 1962 film, Davis played the insane former child star stuck caring for Blanche, her invalid sister, played by Davis. So now we have Rupp/Ruth/Joan/Blanche vs. Kearns/Mildred/Bette/Baby Jane.
Nigro draws on the true lives of the stars. Ruth/Joan is a promiscuous bisexual and a faded Hollywood sex symbol. Mildred/Bette is an affected artiste who claims to prefer the theater to movies and arty European cinema to Hollywood flicks. That’s common celebrity knowledge (even to me, thanks to Google), and Nigro uses it to motivate the verbal barbs and, eventually, the physical combat between the two women.
Could they have possessed, in real life, the taste and wit for cutting repartee Ruth and Mildred show in this play? Especially in the early scenes, they go at it with flurry after flurry of thrust and parry, slice and stab. It hurts, and it’s funny as hell. Rupp and Kearns’ deadly timing and pacing keep you laughing and appalled at the same time. And the two actresses — meaning the real people on stage, not the dead movie stars — bring just a hint of pleasure to these exchanges. The pleasure is partly sadistic, partly sporting, and wholly entertaining.
During breaks in shooting, Kearns clung to a mid-Atlantic accent, a verbal form of looking down the nose at Crawford. But as she warily yields to Crawford’s appeals, the accent gives way to quotidian American English; that tells you something.
In the long run, it tells you that Kearns/Mildred/Bette has made a terrible mistake in trusting — not to mention underestimating — her old and bitter foe.
Brilliant performances and cutting wit make this a successful evening of theater. Nigro’s forays into deep psychological conversation mitigate that success somewhat. Gorgons loses momentum in the middle, when the speeches turn self-consciously serious and get much longer. They also become chewy with polysyllabic words that are not so convincing coming from Ruth/Joan’s mouth. Rupp and Kearns, so deft with the rapid-fire exchanges, sometimes tripped over them.
The 90-minute play picks up again as it gets physical in the last third. Not many two-woman shows have a fight choreographer; nice work James Fletcher. And way to mix it up, ladies.
Gorgons runs through Nov. 6 in the Studio Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $34 at the BTC box office, 414 291-7800, and at the Renaissance Theaterworks website.