It's no surprise that a politicized, decidedly non-mainstream theater company like Rude Guerrilla champions the work of Charles Busch.
Though his older plays are campy and gag-filled, concerned far more with pruriently stroking the funny bone than seriously contemplating social ills, at their best moments, Busch's farcical romps approach serious art. Through their broad humor and trenchant satire of everything from sexual identity to media stereotypes, they give voice to the marginalized.
Rude Guerrilla, which often stages plays dealing with gay themes, was also attracted because no one gets their gay on like Busch; his style has less to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with cross-dressing, brazen flamboyance and queeny bitchiness.
Rude Guerrilla first staged Busch's companion one-acts, Vampire Lesbians of Sodomand Sleeping Beauty or Coma 10 years ago when it was a gypsy theater company operating out of a Huntington Beach art gallery. The theater has grown mightily in terms of play selection and talent but remained true to its mission of left-of-center, cage-rattling material that makes up in provocation and intelligence what it may lack in sheer entertainment value.
Which is the main problem with its current remounting of Busch's plays: They're supposed to be funny. While Rude Guerrilla is many things, funny doesn't top the list. It's got plenty of actors with great comic timing and performance skills—and probably some directors who could channel both. But for the most part, Rude Guerrilla's reputation is built on intense, serious drama, which is a few light years from the theater of the ridiculous championed by Busch.
That's painfully, acutely apparent in the first play, Sleeping Beauty or Coma. It's a mess, from director (and OC Weekly contributor) Dave Barton's boringly static staging to most of the cast's mangled accents. Comedy, especially broad, stylized comedy, has to move and always stay visually interesting. When it doesn't, it's a disaster—fine performances from Scott Barber, Jay Michael Fraley and Jamie McCoy aside.
Things get much better after intermission. Perhaps Busch's most outrageous, most famous play, Vampire Lesbiansis an hourlong odyssey through three of the most sexually depraved cesspools of human civilization: ancient Sodom, silent-film-era Hollywood and contemporary Las Vegas. It's about two crafty, codependent succubi who plot, scheme and battle through the centuries for dominance—and the necks of any nearby virgins.
The better-written of the two plays, it is less dependent on English accents and contains enough genuinely funny and perversely beautiful moments to elevate it above cheap camp. Fraley shines as the more sensitive of the undead duo, bringing depth and emotional resonance to a character that could easily be played grossly over-the-top.
It's still not the nonstop laugh riot expected from an evening with Charles Busch, but at least it's entertaining enough to almost forget the unfortunate play that precedes it.
Sleeping Beauty or Coma and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; also, Thurs., July 5, 8 p.m. Through July 7. $10-$20.