By: Darryl Reilly
Hitler’s Sister, Reform School Dropout and Squirrel Women from Venus, are among the referred to filmography of brassy washed-up grade-Z movie star Renee Flame in playwright Joel Greenhouse’s hilarious campy spoof with music, Twisted. Mr. Greenhouse zestfully employs Film Noir, early 1960’s exploitation and Andy Warhol movie tropes, à la Charles Ludlum, Charles Busch and other alternative theater eminences, for zany results in this snappy presentation. After cratering in Hollywood, Renee goes on the strip club circuit and is hired by an upper-class New Orleans family of religious cultists to appear in their ritualistic pageant.
Among the production’s pleasures is the racy incidental musical score co-composed by Peter Dizozza and Joe John Battista with its hints of jazz, the Great American Songbook, Doo-wop, the Swinging 60’s, and “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind. It is rendered by an exceptional band which has Mr. Dizozza on piano, Kevin Murray on drums, Ron Raymond on bass and Mr. Battista on guitar. Greenhouse’s lyrics for the well-crafted songs are appropriately witty.
Besides collaborating on the music and playing guitar, Joe John Battista also supremely directed the show. Mr. Battista is a veteran theater visionary who has helmed numerous New York City productions with idiosyncratic verve; in Twisted, he is welcomely in overdrive. The well-calibrated energetic cast of a dozen are positioned with fluidity and precision, yielding striking stage pictures and vivid tableaus. Occasional wafting thick clouds from a smoke machine add to the bygone atmosphere. Integral to the merriment is the rear stage wall screen which projects wild shadow depictions of outrageous sex, creepy incest and eerie bestiality, with sly nods to John Waters. Sevin Ceviker’s zippy choreography is joyously referential.
Channeling a Warhol Superstar and recalling Sylvia Miles’ gritty grandeur, is the lean, leggy and animated Penny Balfour who plays the hard-boiled Lana Turna-type Renee Flame. Ms. Balfour’s dry vocal delivery and magnetic stage presence enforce her delightfully forceful characterization. Decked out in black leather from head to toe sometimes, the very tall, very lithe and very imposing Robert Z Grant is sensuously loopy as Renee Flame’s mysterious love interest with his alluring chiseled facial features, plus he gets to sing “My Way” in his appealing rangy voice while wearing a stunning reptile costume. Radiating Blanche Devereaux-style glee is the wonderfully peppy Brian Belovitch as a domineering Southern belle matriarch.
The captivating Maude Lardner Burke is marvelously feisty as Renee Flame’s Dawn Davenport-type daughter who was framed for the murder of her mother’s mobster boyfriend and who receives shock treatments in a mental institution. Exhibiting musical theater leading man stature through his grand physicality and powerful voice is Andrew Ryan Perry as a hapless hero. A salacious Catholic priest is among the multiple roles the wry Tony Del Bono mirthfully scores in. The explosive Larry Fleischman is the ultimate sleazy Hollywood agent. Christine Weiss Beidel is compellingly offbeat as a vicious maid and an evil nurse. Evan Laurence’s appearances as a drag waitress and a gay leather man are frothy. The dynamic Sevin Ceviker, JC Augustin and Xue Yun Zhang round out the ensemble.
Scenic designer Mark Marcante’s bold and varied settings are marvels of Downtown theater achievement. Brian Park’s frenetic lighting design accentuates the abundant absurdities with flair, and his crystalline sound design joltingly realizes the music and effects. Ranging from animal prints, S & M regalia, flapper dresses and gangster attire, Wendy Tonken’s costume design is colossally fabulous.
Twisted is a riotous and raunchy extravaganza.
Twisted (through October 15, 2023)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission