Let's forget, for a moment, that The Dolls is a drag troupe. Let's think of The Dolls, first and foremost, as a group of devoted actors, musicians and costume specialists with a love of theater coursing through their veins. Got that premise in your head? Good—keep it there.
The Dolls opened The Bad Seed last weekend at the Desert Rose Playhouse. It's only the second production the troupe has performed based on existing work not written by The Dolls. Adapted for stage by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson from William March's National Book Award-winning novel, The Bad Seed opened on Broadway in 1954 and was later adapted to film and nominated for four Academy Awards. (See the award-winning trends here?)
Set in '50s America, The Bad Seed peers into the picture-perfect life of Christine (Tequila Mockingbyrd), Kenneth (Edward N. Hein) and Rhoda Penmark (A.J. Carian). As Kenneth prepares to fulfill his duty to god and country, he's heartbroken to leave behind his sweet little 10-year-old girl, Rhoda, and lovely wife, Christine. With the help of landlord/devoted friend Monica Bredelove (Patrick Ross), Christine and Rhoda pass the time with cakes and luncheons and picnics. Monica—and everyone, for that matter—loves Rhoda, who has perfect attendance at school, always aces her quarterly exams and never misspells a word ... except that one time.
When the boy who won the spelling bee mysteriously drowns at a school picnic, suspicions arise as to where his spelling medal ended up. All eyes turn to Rhoda, as she was the last to be seen with the boy (and it’s well-known she felt she deserved to win the medal). Christine begins to worry about her little angel. Fearing her own unknown history, Christine seeks answers to Rhoda's strange behavior. Behavior that only gets stranger.
It's easy to see why The Dolls chose to perform The Bad Seed. The character list is riddled with iconic women: the stoic Christine, the self-aggrandizing Monica, the self-preserving schoolmarm Miss Fern (Stacia Segovia) and the working-lush Mrs. Daigle (Patti Roxxx) to name a few. The script also includes a number of comedic lines perfectly poised for The Dolls, though it’s possible a few alterations were made to aid in the humor (like changing the name of the groundskeeper from Leroy to Marion, played by Jay Kincheloe, for a classic "Mary and Rhoda" joke). While what makes this performance by The Dolls great isn’t the drag element, The Bad Seed is the ultimate kind of drag performance. Yes, all the female characters are played by men in drag, but they’re playing women—and playing them very, very well. It's a key difference in the tone and reality in which The Bad Seed resides, and it creates a vehicle for the performers in The Dolls to showcase the depth of their acting talent. It’s like traditional Shakespeare where all parts are played by men but, dare we say, more fabulously.
When The Dolls originally planned to produce The Bad Seed, the late Geneva Convention was cast in the lead role of Christine. Since her passing due to cancer in October of 2007, The Dolls decided to stage The Bad Seed in her honor, with her partner and Dolls cofounder Tequila Mockingbyrd taking the lead. Mockingbyrd is a commanding presence onstage, playing the loving, enraged, heartbroken mother with tremendous strength without overshadowing the rest of the cast. She covers her torment like a perfect lady, then lets it lash out with such emotion it's frightful.
Carian is splendid as the deranged Rhoda. Cute-as-a-button in lacy party dresses and knee-high socks, Carian is a convincing 10-year-old girl/serial murderer. Carian uses his large, warm smile and doey eyes to enshrine Rhoda in the hearts of those around her (including the audience). When the smile comes off, the horrible reality of Rhoda's psychosis is revealed—if only for one eerie moment.
The entire cast of The Bad Seed is well-polished, presenting high quality all around. Ross as Monica Bredelove masterfully highlights even the smallest comedic moment, as does Roxxx as Mrs. Daigle (who, thankfully, kept "lush" from being "obnoxious drunk"). Kincheloe maintains a back-and-forth with Carian that fuels the fear surrounding Rhoda. When the groundskeeper’s prodding finally goes too far, Kincheloe's flight-before-fight reaction is shared with the audience, not force-fed.
The most impressive aspect of The Dolls' production of The Bad Seed comes down to details: an immaculately designed set, multiple story-driven costume changes, a smart use of props and highly effective (but gently used) spot lighting. Even as the script is a bit repetitive, the redundancy is nearly unnoticeable given how every scene is professionally and carefully presented. One thing's for sure: The Dolls won't put on a show the entire troupe isn't 100 percent satisfied with. The talents that make up The Dolls have taken this theatrical staple and created their own maniacal, disturbing masterpiece.