Pandora Productions’ next show “Die! Mommy! Die!” is another offering from the canon of Charles Busch, a writer known for mining melodrama for comedy and pathos, including frequent looks at femme fatales from film.
Busch’s productions usually include at least one high-camp drag performance and often feature younger characters, revealing the author’s fascination for beach movies and other staples of teen-centric films.
“Die!” is prototypical Pandora fare, and they’ve performed Busch plays several times, but in the decades since the company began performing LGBTQ-centered material and in the 19 years since “Die!” first hit the stage, the landscape of American theater — and America in general — has changed.
Busch’s work still feels relevant. What used to be an idiosyncratic approach to characters is now an exploration of achieved identity, as well as the more complicated sides of coming out and finding yourself.
To further explore Busch’s continued relevance in advance of Pandora’s premiere of the play on Thursday, Insider sat down with Eli Lucas and Jack Wallen, actors with identities and viewpoints Busch might not have originally envisioned, but who nevertheless fit right in at Pandora Productions.
Lucas is a 17-year-old senior at Providence High School in Clarksville, and “Die!” is his first show with Pandora. The actor is young and gay, coming of age and coming out in a post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, a world that seemed nearly impossible back in 1999. Lucas says it’s going well, praising his parents and family for their love and support.
In “Die!,” Lucas plays a character who is not handling his exploration of self as well, in part due to less supportive and less sane parents.
“Lance, he is a very disturbed young man who is 19, coming home from college,” said Lucas.
Lucas stopped there, conscious of how quickly he might move into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that Lance struggles with some romantic feelings and urges for which he is not prepared.
While Lance is coming home from college, Lucas is about to leave for college. He’s going to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, a prestigious conservatory program that often lures Louisvillians up to the Buckeye State.
That’s a big change. Most of Lucas’ performances have occurred within the confines of his K-12 schooling at Providence. This includes plays like “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Les Mis” and two plays about Jesus, among many others.
“I feel like (‘Die!’) was a transition to college, to more mature theater, to … less Catholic theater,” said Lucas.
For Jack Wallen, “Die!” is less a transition and more a new beginning — a return to theater at the age of 50.
“I was a professional actor for 30 years, and I took a hiatus and decided to turn my creative energy to writing,” said Wallen.
He’s written novels and did freelance tech writing. He had hoped writing would scratch his creative urges completely.
“Eventually I found myself … lacking? The thing about writing is, it’s a sole endeavor. The one thing that is so beautiful about theater is that you are working with other people,” said Wallen.
So he returned to the stage, and Pandora happily snapped him up for the role of Lance’s aging mother, the female character in this production traditionally played by a man in drag.
“I play Angela Arden, who is the matriarch of the family (and) who will do absolutely anything to survive,” he said.
Arden’s drag allows Wallen a chance to go big — Busch’s inspiration for characters like Angela are the outsized women in films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Dead Ringer.”
Wallen and Lucas believe their roles have political and social value, which is often a component of Pandora’s shows. Lucas said that despite LGBTQ characters being more prevalent in film and on TV, it’s particularly important for these characters to exist on stage.
“In the abstract, (people think), ‘Yeah, I’m OK with gay people, and of course, I’m supportive.’ When you’re right there in the front row, watching me about to … you know … it’s right there in front of you. It forces you to think, it forces you to have some opinions,” said Lucas.
He also spoke about how his sexuality is treated at school, which similarly illustrates a disconnect between a lack of outright bigotry and its actual absence.
“I go to a Catholic school, you live in a box. And I’m not going to say people are mean, because they’re not. They accept me,” he explained. “But here (at Pandora), instead of being accepted, I feel celebrated. I come in here, and people aren’t blind to my sexuality, people embrace it.”
For Wallen, a cisgender heterosexual, the political statements of the play are somewhat extra textual.
“I’m not playing this woman ‘in drag’ — for me, it’s about playing a truthful character who just happens to be very grand. But I can show the community that I can be a straight man and come in and be in drag and be comfortable with that,” said Wallen. “I think what Pandora is doing is a great thing for the LGBT community, but I think on a side note, what they show is that the straight community can easily and seamlessly interact — it can be this one big collective of people.”
The works of Busch, especially in the hands of Pandora Productions, will no doubt continue to be amusing and moving and continue to explore some interesting aspects of gender, sexuality and identity.
Pandora offers up “Die! Mommy Die!” starting Thursday, May 10. It continues through May 20 at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $20.