Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Bad Seed"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


based on the play by Maxwell Anderson

directed by James P. Byrne

Colin Powell … Winthrop Booth
Christine Powell … Afrodite
Rhoda Powell … Haylee Shrimpton
Monica Breedlove … Ryan Landry
Leroy … P. J. McWhiskers
Miss Fern … Rick Park / David Handbury
Mrs. Daigle … Scott Martino
Mr. Daigle … Winthrop Booth
Richard Bravo … James P. Byrne

Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans have revived their acclaimed spin on THE BAD SEED; in doing so, they now stand at a bit of a crossroads: how seriously should they take themselves as artists? Last year, Mr. Landry & Co. followed their bad-taste ROSEMARY’S BABY with two brilliant entertainments --- CAMILLE and JOAN CRAWFORD’S CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE --- where the raunchiness was held in check by their love for thundering melodrama pushed just enough to make it hilarious. In between these twin peaks came (S)CARRIE, a minor entry in their growing canon but the first Orphan show I’ve seen that was genuinely touching --- (S)Carrie may have been surrounded by the usual zanies, but she herself was never travestied. And now, their BAD SEED has produced a hybrid --- part Camp, part Drama. At first, I was disappointed by the diminished number of belly laughs but I was soon fascinated by what the Orphans can do when they stop acting like tacky broads and start acting like actresses.

THE BAD SEED is the well-known horror tale of eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, an angelic-looking little murderess, and her mother Christine, torn between maternal love and a social conscience --- Rhoda will go on killing if left unchecked. Rhoda’s psychosis could be hereditary: Christine learns that her own mother was a serial killer and may have passed the “bad seed” on to Rhoda (skipping a generation; i.e., Christine). The ending of the 1956 film version is radically different than the William March novel (which is genuinely creepy --- trust me!) and the Maxwell Anderson stage adaptation; the Orphans go for the original ending along with incorporating the current war with Iraq; the Penmark family now becomes the Colin Powell household.

There is not much in THE BAD SEED to improve upon in terms of Camp: Rhoda is a built-in parody of the Little Princess syndrome, deceiving many with her perfect manners, her immaculate dresses and her ropelike braids; the ever-suffering Christine is right out of the gaslight era (“My child! My child!” she should wail as she beats her breast). What distinguishes old-time Melodrama from today’s Camp is how much heart an actor puts into the outdated material; here, the Orphan production breaks neatly in half: the Camps (Ryan Landry, P. J. McWhiskers, David Handbury and James P. Byrne) and the Actors (Afrodite, Haylee Shrimpton, Scott Martino and Winthrop Booth). The Camps fall back on their usual fare: grotesque characterizations, sadomasochism, lust and cocaine, much of which seems forced, even unnecessary; the Actors perform the Anderson play in period with tongue securely in cheek. Something for everyone, but in this case I prefer the Actors.

Haylee Shrimpton is an ideal Rhoda, both in appearance and poker-faced temperament; as I wrote of her last time, this little actress is learning invaluable stage technique with the Orphans and her apprenticeship has started to pay off handsomely: Ms. Shrimpton displays remarkable poise, timing and a twisted innocence in her playing --- even her Camp add-ons (trashing a doll; singing a fragment of a hit song; etc.) are carried out with casual matter-of-factness. Afrodite, long in supporting comic roles, now comes to the fore as a dramatic performer: her regal dignity is suffused with a newly acquired warmth, and I hope she will not feel pressured into camping it up to coax whoops and cheers from her audiences: what she is doing now is perfectly legitimate. (Ironically, the racial difference between mother and daughter is at first taken for granted; when called attention to for the sake of the plot, said difference inevitably turns to Camp.)

Scott Martino, playing Mrs. Daigle, the drunken mother of one of Rhoda’s victims, stops the show cold in its tracks by giving a PERFORMANCE, regardless of gender. Mr. Martino is funny and tragic exactly where the script requires him to be --- there is little camping here --- the snickers from the audience soon give way to silence: the Ramrod audience is actually LISTENING and at the end of his two scenes, Mr. Martino is followed offstage by ringing applause --- and this for playing Mrs. Daigle (*ahem*) “straight” (if a Martha is ever needed for an all-male production of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, here she is). Winthrop Booth, who starts off as an overly macho Colin Powell, quietly moves as Mr. Daigle, standing helplessly off to the side as Mrs. Daigle heads farther out on a dark sea of her own making.

Twice I attended performances of CAMILLE and JOAN CRAWFORD’S CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE; both shows were even richer and funnier the second time around. How will THE BAD SEED evolve during its run? Will the divide between the Camps and the Actors continue, or will one side cross over to the other? If only, if only the Camps could re-enter in more conservative dress and match the Actors in their playing style. The production would still be as funny and spooky and moving as much of it is now, but it would also be a giant leap forward towards the Orphans being taken seriously by the general public. Just as more and more actresses are transgendering Shakespeare, etc. and not being mocked for their efforts, why should actors feel obliged to camp it up when they take on women’s roles? The position of the Actress in Western theatre is less than 500 years old; theatre itself goes back to the beginning of time. You do the math.

"The Bad Seed" (11 April-3 May)
1254 Boylston Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 265-6222

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