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Arts and Entertainment

'BitchSlap!' Resurrects Hollywood Divas Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Hedda Hopper With A Vengeance

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Darrin Hagen brings three legendary Hollywood divas -- Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Hedda Hopper -- back from the dead to duke it out on the Macha Theatre stage in BitchSlap! In this coup de camp, Hagen retells the well-known but never tiring story of the jealousy-charged Davis-Crawford feud through the eyes of powerful gossip columnist, Hopper. BitchSlap! offers its audience lots of silver screen history, memorable What Ever Happened to Baby Jane moments, and extravagant belly laughs all wrapped up nice and tight in a barrage of juicy gossip and catty bitchiness.

Crawford and Davis are among the most celebrated and iconic actresses to have ever graced the film industry. They are well-known legends in their own right that need little introduction as both have emerged in popular culture well beyond their own deaths (think Mommie Dearest and Bette Davis Eyes). Crawford frequently played good girls in rags-to-riches through hard work inflected stories that spoke to the struggling Depression and World War II Era audiences of the 1930s and 1940s. Davis, on the other hand, during the same time period, was generally cast as the prototypical mean girl in vulgar, mean-spirited, and super dramatic roles that are deliciously stinging. While less known and remembered today, Hopper was a failed actress-turned-gossip columnist that made it big by reporting the latest and greatest celebrity gossip. Hopper was basically the Perez Hilton of her day. She became rich off of celebrity misfortune and could make or break a career if she so chose to do so. Hopper became so powerful that she dubbed her Beverly Hills mansion the "house that fear built."

Hagen's well-researched and clearly venerating script is a nice complement to the campy, physical humor that the cast lends to BitchSlap! The playwright depicts the career parallels of Crawford and Davis and reveals their bitter relationship to one another. But then he digs deeper: Hagen highlights the symbiotic, practically predatory co-dependency that existed (and still exists) between the press and female celebrities, begging the question of why the paradigm persists. Through Crawford and Davis, BitchSlap! gets to the heart of the problem to illustrate the socially-rooted sexism and ageism that fuels the tabloid and gossip underbelly of Hollywood, leaving the audience to wonder exactly how much of the Crawford-Davis feud is fact and how much is media-created myth. The BitchSlap! cast is small, but powerful with all three performers giving spot-on, transportive impressions of their respective silver screen drama queens. C. Stephen Foster plays Davis Baby Jane-style, full of short sloshy drawls, ungraceful huffing, and saucy chutzpa. Every word that Foster says as Davis is funny. Every word. Michael Taylor Gray is a perfect Crawford. His sense of humor is more subtle, but when he lays on the camp, he lays it on thick, cutting through Crawford's forced, but lovable poise. Finally, Therese McLaughlin is slick and energetic as the fast-talking Hopper. She often literally gets her audience to lean forward just a bit as though actually hearing a juicy bit of virgin gossip.

Director Odalys Nanin skillfully crafts a Hollywood history lesson into a humor-honeyed pleasure. The staging of BitchSlap is pretty modest, but she brings the larger-to-life personalities back to life on the stage, harmoniously balancing both. For Crawford and Davis fans, BitchSlap! is an obvious must-see exercise in deja vu remembrance of meaningful, smart film making dominated by talent goddesses. For those who have yet to discover them, this is a pretty good, undeniably funny place to start.

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BitchSlap! is playing at Macha Theatre through June 17. Tickets are $35 and available online or via phone at 323-960-7724.

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