Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre reaches back -- again

"Pull the string! Pull the string!" urges Bela Lugosi in his thick Romanian accent as he presides over Glen or Glenda, that memorably awful 1953 movie about urges of another kind.

What does it mean to "pull the string"? Who knows? Who cares? As delivered by the lugubrious Lugosi, this short declarative command is the film's only memorable line. Ostensibly a plea for tolerance of the tortured world of the transvestite, Glen or Glenda was instead -- and remains evermore -- an exercise in mediocrity. This is not even a "B" movie; on any rational scale it might register as a "D" or an "F" or maybe even a "Y."

Perhaps mediocrity alone is enough to qualify the film for parody at the hands of Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, which over the past decade has established itself as one of the St. Louis area's guilty pleasures. Glen or Glenda: Live! is a 65-minute exercise in grimaces and exaggerated gestures for a friendly audience that has come prepared to laugh. And there are laughs to be had. The sex-change operation is amusingly staged. The set design by Amanda Handle is, like the costumes, cleverly limited to various hues of black and white, reminding us that we've stepped into an el-cheapo movie. And though the peppy performances are composed more of mugging than of acting, one thespian bears an uncanny resemblance to Edward D. Wood Jr., himself. We won't identify which one he/she is. That guessing game will help to occupy your time as this cross-dressing escapade plays out.

Because here's the show's Achilles high-heel: Glen or Glenda might not be the worst movie ever made, but it's certainly one of the dullest. Even a spoof of dreary material eventually becomes mired in the bog of boredom. True, ten years ago Glen or Glenda was the first MSMT offering ever; it has a proven track record, for this is the very show that successfully established the company's devil-may-care tone. But perhaps it's worth noting that when that initial Glen or Glenda lampoon was staged in 1996, Tim Burton's affectionate feature film Ed Wood was still fresh in viewers' minds; Martin Landau had just won the Academy Award for his poignant impersonation of Lugosi; Johnny Depp's enthusiastic Boy Scout evocation of Wood motivated moviegoers to seek out the director's inept films. Inquiring minds wanted to know more.

A decade (and almost a generation) later one cannot help wondering how many in the MSMT audience have seen Ed Wood, much less Glen or Glenda. Do today's theatergoers know why they're laughing? When the actors stampede across the stage wearing paper helmets shaped like buffaloes, how many viewers realize that Wood had a bizarre predilection, not merely for wearing women's padded brassieres, but also for padding out his movies with nonsensical stock "B" roll footage? Maybe a theatergoer doesn't need to know these things; maybe the fast-paced onstage lunacy provides humor enough. But if you don't know the source material for a spoof, then what are you spoofing? Such questions don't arise at a take-off of Star Wars or It's a Wonderful Life, where the audience is united by familiarity. But here there's a sense that some of the laughter is ringing hollow.

The already brief evening is augmented by five confusingly staged vignettes labeled "Dating Do's and Don'ts" that might or might not be taking swipes at 1950s high school hygiene films. It was tough to discern why the sketches were there other than to fill time; to that extent, they serve as the stage equivalent to Wood's B-roll. Even before the last of the five sketches had run its course, one felt the urge to holler, "Pull the string!"

Then came the realization: So that's what Lugosi was saying! Perhaps "Pull the string" is B-movie code for that tried-and-true theater mantra, "Get the hook!"