What a campy, kitschy, zany romp “Red Scare on Sunset” is. One of playwright – and drag legend – Charles Busch’s funniest spoofs yet, it’s eerily timely, and laugh-out-loud entertaining on the Tower Grove Abbey stage.
Stray Dog Theatre’s third Busch show is light-hearted merriment with a message, combining luxurious Hollywood glamour with a goofy political parody.
Director Gary F. Bell has presented two other Busch parodies – “Psycho Beach Party” in 2013 and “Die Mommie Die!” in their first season in 2008.
Inspired by Busch’s irreverence and distaste for provincial attitudes, Bell knows how to maximize the kookiness and big hair to effectively take aim at what Busch skewers.
Busch’s riffs on race, religion and gender issues are omnipresent, but with a comic twist, and usually framed through old movie and TV satires.
This time it’s McCarthy-era tactics and the Russian puppets in the shadows. We know we’re in a divisive political climate, and while the Cold War is no longer, threats to democracy are. Which gives this play, set in 1950s Hollywood, a contemporary parallel.
Will Bonfiglio is a vision as America’s sweetheart Mary Dale, a musical star under great duress as Commies and Pinkos seem to be multiplying in Tinsel Town. Most are studying — oh the horror — method acting!
Bonfiglio’s great fun to watch, especially for his ability to project whiplash emotions and react with Gloria Swanson’s “Sunset Boulevard” crazy eyes.
And as a Hollywood fashion plate, he carries off the glamorous outfits like a red-carpet veteran at the Oscars. Along with Shannon Nara as Pat Pilford and Ariel Roukaerts as Marta Towers, they look as if they’re fresh from a Photoplay spread, epitomizing post-World War II chic.
Costume designer Amy Hopkins makes an impressive St. Louis debut with star style that rivals legend Edith Head (record eight Oscars for costume design). Her hats are swoon-worthy, too.
With her Lucille Ball facial expressions, Nara is hilarious as the militant radio host. As her manic emotions erupt in full fury, she’s vocal about her disgust for Communist sympathizers — but has a sordid past she keeps concealed.
Looking like a soap opera star, Stephen Peirick delights in going over-the-top as a has-been matinee idol trying to reinvent his career for a comeback. He’s married to Mary, but the happy home act is on shaky ground. He’s hysterical delivering lines like he’s in the remake of ‘Reefer Madness.”
Ariel Roukaerts is strong as pushy Marta Towers, who has more than method acting tips on her mind. She is seen briefly as Lady Prudwen.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert has created a tasteful beach house that reflects this era, and perfect for Will to glide in, floating down the stairs like Loretta Young did on early TV.
Of special note is the ensemble’s crisp comic timing and precise choreography to ramp up the melodrama. Having a blast are Gerry Love and Chris Ceradsky as villains and Stephen Henley as loyal, flamboyant houseboy and cosmetologist Malcolm Levine and thick-accented acting teacher Yetta Felson. Michael Baird is nimble in a variety of roles, both male and female, distinguishing them all well.
Sound designer Justin Been accented the plot with well-chosen schmaltzy show-bizzy pieces and punctuates the farcical scenes with diabolical sounds that add to the overall experience.
This jocular cast is reminiscent of “The Carol Burnett Show” spoofs that were such a hoot to watch.
While the play takes us back to a very different time, it also pushes us forward to think about what’s happening now, things that make us go “Hmmm…”
Stray Dog performances are this Thursday through Saturday this weekend and next, with a special Sunday, Feb. 18, matinee at 2 p.m. www.straydogtheatre.org