Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Follows Supernatural Divas Throughout the Ages to Spartanburg
By Steve Wong
In the basement of a church in Spartanburg there is something queer going on. There are vampires, bickering starlets, dancing boys, men in drag, and a full-house production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, an off Broadway play that is vampy, campy, and just right for Halloween.
First, let’s answer some haunting questions that might discourage or encourage you to see this delightfully funny and oh-so naughty play. Yes, this play is indeed about two very old (never aging) and sexy vampires, but you won’t be seeing any naughty body parts. About the most skin you’ll see is a dancing boy stripped down to his Speedo. There are a few four-letter words, which would probably give it an undeserved R rating. Personally, I’d give it a PG-13, but I’m pretty liberal. It is sexual, but really no more so (actually a lot less) than say The Rocky Horror Show. It is seriously silly and campy to the highest level. And, oh, yes, it all started in Sodom, the original sin city in ancient Biblical times, but it ends in Las Vegas, modern America’s don’t-tell city. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom is not blasphemous, but it’s not shy at poking fun at religion, politics, sexuality, entertainment, and even itself.
I hope I have set the tone of basic expectations because let’s not judge a play by its title, even though the title pretty much sums its up. If you enjoy seeing the play or movie The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, you’ll enjoy this play. If you’re a prude, eat your Halloween treats in the closet.
As the story goes, back in the days of salt pillars and twin cities being destroyed by fire and brimstone, the virgin Madelaine Astarte, played in outrageous drag by David Raulston, was to be sacrificed to the succubus La Condesa, played by Brigitte Staggs. We know this because a couple of hunky guards in gold waist wraps chat about it as the play opens. (Technically, a succubus is a female demon who kills sleeping men during sex, but let’s not quibble over the sexual orientation of the supernatural or super campy.) From the get-go Madelaine Astarte and La Condesa are dueling queens of cattiness and outlandish costumes. The dialog is off-the-chart witty and insightful, and delivered with in-your-face attitudes. The costumes are the envy of sequin-deprived and depraved, and worn proud and loud. The virgin-turned vampire and the succubus begin a cat fight for stardom that goes on for centuries, but actually for only two more short acts: one in Hollywood and one in Las Vegas.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom is the current production of Proud Mary Theatre, South Carolina’s first and only theatre company centered on LGBTQ+ issues and entertainment. It was first produced in 1984 (35 years ago) in the Limbo Lounge of Manhattan’s East Village. But it was so good, it soon moved to off Broadway to the Provincetown Playhouse, where it ran for five years, making it one of the longest running off Broadway plays ever.
It was written by Charles Busch, an American actor, screenwriter, playwright, and female impersonator, who has written a slew of books, films, and plays, most of which include men in drag. His work has been on Broadway, nominated for a Tony, and won the John L. Gassner Award for playwriting. I tell you all this to establish the fact that his work is widely accepted and acclaimed, although hardly mainstream.
Proud Mary enlisted the directorial help of Kevin Treu, who recently directed Little Shop of Horrors at Greenville’s Centre Stage and will direct Lost Highway: The Hank Williams Story at Spartanburg Little Theatre in January. The rest of the cast includes gossip columnist Oatsie Carewe played by Jada LaShay Bell, Sun Schwalm as would-be Hollywood starlet Renee Vain, Allen Shepard as King Carlisle, Kareem Johnson as Hujar/Zack, Trey Westbrook as Ali/PJ, and Brock Davis as the butler Etienne/Danny.
Rightfully so, Raulston and Staggs are the starcrossed vamps, each one trying to outshine the other throughout the bumpy course of diva history. As an actors Raulston and Staggs create wonderful chemistry on stage: They love to hate and hate to love each other. Like two old hasbeens competing for another shot at stardom, they cross paths and trip each other up in the early years of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1920s-1940s) and continue their tit-for-tat to Las Vegas’s seedy years, the 1980s. Acting in drag has the innate pitfalls of falling short or overstepping character development. Here, Raulston finds that perfect balance of being appropriately over-the-top without topping out. Even though the character is meant to be flashy and forward, Raulston instills a good amount of dignity–inasmuch that an envious bloodsucking vampire with a taste for form-fitting dresses will allow.
Yet, it was Staggs who repeatedly stole my attention. Unencumbered by crossdressing, Staggs is at ease in her role as a fashion-forward succubus who has survived the ups and downs of fame and fortune. As an actor, she rolls with the punchy dialog, cultivates and harvests the humor, and seems to take the absurdity in stride. With a character has dominating as La Condesa, it would be easy and effective to just be flashy and catty. Instead, Staggs adds a measure of sincerity, a big dose of professionalism, and the good sense to not take it all too seriously. La Condesa is a great character for Staggs to play, but it will certainly not be her hallmark for I believe her best is yet to come.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom is out of the box for theatre in Spartanburg. For the open minded, it is a peek at another world, and I don’t mean the fictional world of vampires. This is a play that takes us into the realm of repressed sexuality and explodes with creativity, relief, and make-up that conceals a five o’clock shadow. And it brings hope. In its quest for open mindedness and tourism dollars, the City of Spartanburg granted Proud Mary Theatre Company money for this and other productions. And, this particular show is an official event for the annual Upstate Pride celebration. It is another victory for local LGBTQ+ community and its efforts toward acceptance by the straight community. I can’t think of any better to accomplish this than to laugh, laugh at the obvious, laugh at the discrimination, laugh at themselves, and to let others laugh with them.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom plays at West Main Artists Co-op in Spartanburg, Halloween night at 8 p.m.; twice on Friday, Nov. 1 at 8 and 10 p.m.; and lastly on Saturday at 8 p.m. Check Facebook and ProudMaryTheatre.com for exact times and tickets.