Hell's Belles, currently on the boards at the Cowpokes Theatre Space, is loosely based on The Beguiled, a 1971 film that starred Clint Eastwood as a wounded (and deserting) Yankee soldier who finds refuge in an isolated girls school in the Deep South. Girly-girly situations of this kind are perfect grist for the cross-gender mill (think of women's prisons and convents). Here, we have the additional lure of the antebellum South -- or rather the bellum South -- with its formality of dress and manners, nobly upheld despite the disasters of war.
First, we meet Caroline (Veronica Oliver), a teenage orphan who has come to enroll in The French Finishing School. She is quickly disabused of her hopes by the formidable headmistress, Mademoiselle Beatrice French (an exquisitely authoritarian Brian Peterson). However, Caroline has a letter of introduction from Mademoiselle's no-good brother (with potentially dubious relationships with both women).
Soon, we meet the student body: Althea (Elizabeth Pearce), Melba (Dorian Rush), the caustic Sarah (Bianca Del Rio) and the adorable, well-meaning Lucy (Jason Toups). Oh, and of course, there is a long-time (somewhat demonic) factotum of African heritage (Charles Grant).
Into this hen house of steamy repression drops a deliciously helpless cock (!), Maj. Ashley Wood (Flynn De Marco). Unfortunately, Major Woods is a no-goodnik. He immediately sets about to cause dissension by playing on the tender sensibilities of his hostesses -- telling the house servant he was wounded while emancipating slaves, and pitching woo to all and sundry with a most ungentlemanly Yankee disregard for the purity (ho, ho) of Confederate womanhood.
This gets us to the end of the first act. And I must say, in the last half of the first act, the play is a bit bogged down by the Major's repetitious knavery. Fortunately, things pick up again in the second act, where the girls perform their delightful version of The Bacchae, a symbolic foreshadowing of the grisly end awaiting the Major himself. Confederate manhood (Jim Jeske and Patrick Flynn) enters first in the guise of soldiers in search of the Yankee and later as two "elderly society bachelors" (wink wink, nudge nudge).
As is often the case with Running with Scissors, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While there are many clever lines and deft comic touches, there are also some duds in both departments. But the overall mood is agreeably outrageous and infectious. Somehow, the chemistry just works. De Marco and Richard Read co-wrote and co-directed. The attractive frocks were stitched by Big Easy nominees Amanda Madden and Roy Haylock (who in drag is also the aforementioned Bianca Del Rio). We are told Running With Scissors will next apply its wrecking balls (!) to Balzac's Cousin Bette. Quelle scandale!
While camp is a genre of humor that is very much of our time, slapstick has almost become extinct. So I was caught off-guard in the first act of John Brochu's Cooking With Gus, at Carlone's, when Dane Rhodes (playing a low-brow TV hustler who talks in acronyms) stepped mistakenly into a large bowl of cottage cheese batter. The audience found it funny. I didn't. But seconds later, when he mistakenly sat down in the same bowl. I have to confess he got me. I laughed out loud.
The play is an unrepentant mess, in all senses of the word. Those of us old enough to remember the Milton Berle show may have a nostalgic moment or two -- because the shtick is worthy of "Mr. Television" himself. Once again, in fairness, I must say the audience ate it up. And there were moments when my own inner child burst out, in spite of the "tch-tch-ings" of good taste -- during some of Sandy Bravender's drunken slop-athon of a cooking demonstration, for instance, or when Rhodes and Bob Edes did their deadpan pratfalls on the same slippery spot on the kitchen floor.
Unfortunately, Milton Berle's writers did not, in fact, pen the script. There is a frosting of contemporary "poignant" sitcom applied to this cream puff. It is during the serious moments that we are really dying to see someone get a pie in their face.
Doris Methe, as the eccentric Jewish Gypsy witch alcoholic neighbor, completes the cast. David Raphael designed the serviceable and apt set. Jerry Lee Leighton directed this at-times amusing oddity.