In downtown Ferndale, near the corner of Nine Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, it's the 1980s all over again. Anne Archer appears out of the darkness, re-enacting a scene she once helped burn into the public consciousness: She's walking toward a pot of water that's on a rolling boil. The moment she realizes that it holds the mangled body of her child's pet rabbit, she begins screaming hysterically. Suddenly, Michael Douglas is running toward the stove in slow motion, screaming, arms outstretched, trying to stop his child, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, from seeing the butchered bunny. Michael Douglas is screaming. Anne Archer is screaming. Everybody is screaming. And it's totally fucking hilarious.
It's a Sunday night show at Ferndale's Ringwald Theatre, where the Who Wants Cake theater company has mounted the Michigan premiere of the off-off-Broadway spoof Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy. The show's got quite a hook. The over-the-top parody of the already dated yuppie morality play has a Greek chorus, several '80s musical numbers, and Glenn Close is played by an overweight 40-year-old man in a dress. For good measure, little Ellen Hamilton Latzen is played by a hyperactive adult bouncing around the stage wearing everything but a pinwheel cap.
Given the text of the play, it's hard to say if that's even offbeat casting. If Alana McNair and Kate Wilkinson's nutty comedy were any more "off-Broadway" it'd be in the East River. The text calls for aping the stars excesses: Michael Douglas' simian hamming, Glenn Close's power-suited mane-flipping, Anne Archer's timid wifely chirping. As if written on a bar napkin on a boozy afternoon, the parts are lazily assigned to the actors, not the characters, with priceless placeholder dialogue like, "I'm Michael Douglas. How are you, Anne Archer, my wife?" In a casting coup for the play's 2005 premiere, '80s ex-icon Corey Feldman took the role of Michael Douglas. But the biggest laughs come from how the show skewers the 1987 film's overwrought performances and reactionary sexual politics.
This sort of madcap subversive farce probably wouldn't have made it to the area without partners Joe Bailey and Joe Plambeck. The two met on tour in 2002 when they shared a road gig for a year together, what Plambeck calls his "guerrilla training," doing three shows in five cities for Los Angeles playwright Ronnie Larsen. Plambeck laughs about how well Bailey and he are suited to play characters in Larsen's shows, often "an overweight guy trying to make it in L.A." Though Larsen's titles are ribald including Charlie the Sex Addict Meets Four Hookers and Cocksucker: A Love Story clean-cut Plambeck seems reluctant to share some of the titles with his parents.
When Bailey and Plambeck relocated to metro Detroit (Bailey grew up in Sterling Heights) a few years ago, it didn't take long for them to start producing for themselves. In 2005, Who Wants Cake staged Larry Kramer's seminal 1980s AIDS play, The Normal Heart, to raise funds for the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. But things really took off when the company staged its first farce in Ferndale last year. Despite a lack of air conditioning, audiences crowded into Xhedos Café over several hot weekends in July and August last year to see the group's production of the off-Broadway gender-bender Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
That summer, Who Wants Cake got more than just laughs and applause the group attracted enough serious investment to form a board of directors, lease a space and outfit a theater. That's quite a proposition, given the dwindling arts funding and rising overhead costs facing most small theaters. The enterprise involved leasing a 3,000-square-foot former office on Woodward Avenue. In November, the group embarked on a six-month renovation that Plambeck imagines must have run into the middle five figures. They removed the office's tacky drop ceiling, carved out a competent theatrical space and raced to finish it all before the ambitious off-season schedule of seven shows. They barely made it. The final certificates from the city were inked within hours of the rookie theater's opening curtain late this April.
It seems that farce will be the group's bread and butter, and the Cake crew's summer schedule includes a promising title, Ronnie Larsen's Making Porn. But "the Joes," as they are sometimes known, are hoping the public won't pigeonhole the Ringwald just yet. Bailey goes so far as to joke that, when it comes to donning dresses onstage, he "doesn't plan on making a career out of it or anything." And some more serious choices are among the seven shows scheduled through September, including Richard Greenberg's Pulitzer-nominated drama Three Days of Rain in July and Texas-born writer-producer (Queer as Folk) Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies, opening June 1. Plambeck points to the group's other serious efforts, such as staged readings of Steel Magnolias cast against gender, saying he hopes "the skeptics will come out" and see that "the stories that gay theater tells are different." Plambeck is grateful that gay audiences respond powerfully to seeing characters like themselves on stage, yet he's more enthusiastic for Who Wants Cake to be an outlet for the creative community.
In his sincere and comically self-deprecating manner, Plambeck insists, "We have a reputation for creativity and style. We're not all creative and we're not all stylish god knows I'm not! but the community needs that creative outlet. There's something to be said for live performance, pouring emotion into a performance, being there."
Listening to Plambeck, it makes sense why theater has been so willing to face social realities, because it's where people come face to face and art is an event. The best subversive theater can transform an audience, joining the cultural and the political.
Bailey is clearly attuned to the vibe, and, leaning in, borrows a phrase describing how, through theater, people can wield empathy: "It gives you a chance to become me and me a chance to become you."
The Ringwald Theatre is at 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-556-8581. Their second production, Southern Baptist Sissies, opens June 1.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org