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Monday, May 20, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewUproarious camp-fest 'Bitch Slap!' is a surprisingly touching ode...

Uproarious camp-fest ‘Bitch Slap!’ is a surprisingly touching ode to SF

D'Arcy Drollingers tribute to over-the-top '80s soaps features the talents of folks who could only be found here.

It’s a shame that this still needs to be explained, but yes: critics can and do enjoy populist entertainment. One can be the most stuffed-shirt food critic and still admit they enjoy a greasy slice of cheap pizza. In fact, a good critic will not only enjoy it, but also have the insight to sincerely see the cheapie as having as much value (figuratively, if not literally) to the chef’s special at a Michelin-starred restaurant. All critics love cheap stuff, even the snobs who openly deny it or try to pass the cheap shit off as an unrecognized masterpiece. (Showgirls is not now, has not been, nor will it ever be a satire. It’s just glorious trash.)

It’s been a year since I last went to Oasis, and even longer since I’ve seen one of their proper shows. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time, but if the last thing I saw there was D’Arcy Drollinger’s Bitch Slap! (through May 18 at Oasis, SF), I’d be leaving with best lasting memories.

The latest piece from the club’s owner/co-founder is a tribute to (and skewering of) ‘80s soap operas. Not just the daytime staples like General Hospital and The Bold and Beautiful, but also primetime soaps like Dynasty. In fact, Aaron Spelling’s slap-happy tribute to the bourgeoisie serves as the primary aesthetic template for Drollinger’s own slap-happy story of Diana Midnight (Drollinger) and her shoulder pad empire.

The cast of ‘Bitch Slap!’ Photo by Gooch

From the affluent hills of San Francisco, Mrs. Midnight can often be found sipping champagne and exchanging open-handed strikes with frenemy Cassandra (Katya Smirnoff-Skyy), who desperately wants the lucrative patent on Diana’s shoulder pad designs. Cassanda plans to get it by extorting Diana with the threat of revealing her nymphomania. Cue dramatic organ.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of a twist-laden story involving unfaithful husbands, disabled adopted children, plot-convenient amnesia, several attempted murders, two-faced seductresses, smoldering sexy doctors, and everyone’s apparent need to have alcoholic beverage in-hand at all times. Seriously, it would be folly to even try and recount all the twists and turns as they happen  every single scene—frequently accompanied by the aforementioned organ sound.

Of course, that’s the point: no matter how many “serious” actors claim that they do some of their best work on soaps (which may be true), the genre is defined by melodrama. Every situation is life-or-death, every kiss a love-hate sexual exchange, every line spoken a shocking revelation. They don’t call it “opera” due to anyone’s singing ability, they call it that because it seems like it couldn’t possibly be any more over-the-top.

‘Bitch Slap!’ Photo by Gooch

Unless, of course, it’s done in drag. Drollinger and the glamorous cast of scenery-chewers are inherently aware of the archetypes they inhabit. The beauty of their performances is that they crank up the volume enough to play to the cheap seats, but trust the script enough to know that all the heavy lifting has already been done. Michael Keaton has often spoken of first meeting Jack Nicholson before the filming of Batman, wherein the latter told him to simply “sit back and let the costume do all the acting”. Yet, the pitch-perfect monotone of Matthew Martin (as Diana’s mother) saying “oh my god what’s going on” cracked up the audience each and every time.

What’s more, Drollinger takes full advantage of using the Bay Area as the setting for the high-camp shenanigans. Through on-set props and an upstage LCD, we get a gorgeous, harlequin-like impression of SF as something of a seaside town where personalities are as schizophrenic as the weather. I doubt the show was trying to lampoon anything specific about the Snob Hill elites we know and loathe (unlikely, given the ‘80s setting), but there’s a schadenfreude feeling of watching these 1%-ers get their comeuppance over and over again.

The only time we leave the city proper is when the amnesia subplot takes us to some strange, Yellowstone-like farmland called “Walnut Creek”. Between this and Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (the NCTC production of which also starred Katya Smirnoff-Skyy), it just makes one wonder why more high drama isn’t set in The City by the Bay?

D’Arcy Drollinger and Katya Smirnoff-Skyy in ‘Bitch Slap!’ Photo by Gooch

I don’t recall if Oasis had wall-mounted air purifiers installed when I attended last year, but that show still had a few COVID safety measures in place. I went to opening night of Bitch Slap! knowing I’d likely be the only one masked (I did notice one other masked person in the audience at the end of the show), and one woman waiting to get in ahead of me made me incredibly conscious of it: She did a double-take when she saw my masked face, then gave me the top-to-bottom once-over as if I were Maleficent showing up uninvited to the party. (God forbid my personal safety conflict with drunken revelry.)

In any case, Oasis is still an old building with few ways to actively move air. At intermission, my Aranet4 read CO² levels at 2037ppm. By the final scene, it hovered around 2032ppm before dropping down to 1999ppm by the final bow.

After said bow, the show’s writer-director-star teased us with the revelation that the show would be followed up by a Web series and a proper sequel. I certainly hope I’m still in the Bay Area to see those when they come out, because Bitch Slap! is the sort of reprieve I desperately needed. It presents a cartoonish, anachronistic view of SF featuring the talents of folks who could only be found here. It’s no wonder that Drollinger ends the final bow with sincerity: “Thank you for keeping San Francisco fucking San Francisco.”

That’s what you get from Bitch Slap! Shoulder pads are optional.

BITCH SLAP runs through May 18 at Oasis, SF. Tickets and further info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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