Judith Ann Moriarty
Off-the-Wall’s “Baby Jane”

Perfectly campy

By - Oct 31st, 2011 08:40 am
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Jeremey C. Welter and Mark Hagen — or is it Mark Hagen and Jeremy C. Welter — in the Davis and Crawford roles in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Off the Wall Theatre photo.

I’ve watched the 1962 flick, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, over and over and over on Turner Classic Movies. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do chew up the scenery, in a nightmare of smeared lipstick and askew wigs.

Sitting in Off The Wall Theatre (directly across Wells from the Pabst) at the 4:30 matinee on an Oct. 30 Sunday, as witches and goblins prowl the streets, whets my lust for blood. Jimmy von Milwaukee, he who walks on the wild side and is given to ripe comments, is my date for the matinee. Prior to the overture (tunes from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), I sip a “Baby Jane Slushy” made of vodka and black cherry jello.

Dale Gutzman, for his OTW Whatever, decreed that males play the wild Davis and Crawford roles. In the ’62 film, the deadly duo appear to have testosterone aplenty to fuel their malicious intent. So having Mark Hagen and Jeremey Welter in the lead roles doesn’t matter — unless maybe it spoils the hormonal stew.

Just for more fun, Hagen and Welter are alternating the two roles throughout the run. So Welter (a bitch of a sister Baby Jane Hudson/Davis) got to serve Hagen (Blanche/Crawford) a cooked parakeet and a rat.

(Hagen’s parents were in the sold-out crowd of 60. His mother said Mark attended Thomas More High School, and yes, he was in a few theater productions. “He borrowed a few props from us, a clothes tree and a typewriter,” she observes while munching a cookie.)

You know the story, right? Baby Jane Hudson, former child star on the 1912 vaudeville circuit, goes on to drown in booze and generally screw up life for herself and her sister. Blanche spends her life in a wheelchair. Hagen is brilliant as Blanche, she of the thick black eyebrows, who spends her desperate days trying to escape the seriously sick Baby Jane. It isn’t easy in a wheelchair, but wow, Hagen knows how to scream, wheedle, and scheme. I could smell her desperation.

Welter’s Baby Jane comes on strong, and in the early part of the production really lays on the Bette Davis stuff. But by the end of the story, I feel empathy for her wretched life and (god, this is hard to admit!) almost cry when she launches her final song about a “letter to daddy.” By then, Welter’s tough persona has softened quite a bit, and Baby Jane is almost as lovable as the golden-haired Baby Jane dolls her fans once admired.

It takes a great deal of skill to pull this off on a very small stage. Much credit goes to the staff who devised a set that includes an elevated portion where Blanche and her wheelchair spend a big part of the show. There is a screen door for slamming and a window from which to scream HELP ME HELP ME! And then there’s the telephone and a great bit with Welter ordering booze and deep-sixing her sister’s schemes to escape. Hitchcock fans will recognize the shrieking music from Psycho. When the going gets rough, the familiar Bernard Hermann violins stab through the dialogue.

Was it too campy? Too silly? Too too much?

No.  It was perfect.

The show opened Oct. 27 – and rages on through Nov. 6. Tickets are flying out of the box office; Gutzman may up the ante with additional performances. Call 414-327-3552 or visit the company’s website for reservations.

By the way, Gutzman will soon revive his Holiday Punch, which he claims is the oldest Christmas show in Milwaukee. It arrives in mid December and runs through New Year’s Eve. I’ll be there.

And one more thing: By incredible coincidence, two Baby-Jane/Crawford/Davis related shows are running in Milwaukee. Click on the link to read about Renaissance Theaterworks’ Gorgons.


Categories: A/C Feature 3, Theater

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