Somewhere in a dank dungeon in the city of Sodom, two men are guarding the lair of an ancient creature – the queen of Vampires. They’ve got everything they need: elegant Roman helmets, bay watch-style bathers, a homoerotic dynamic, and a virgin ready to sacrifice.
It’s the rollickingly salacious opening of Charles Busch’s 1984 Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, one of the longest-running shows in Off-Broadway. It’s also a curtain call for independent darlings, Little Ones Theatre, who first burst onto the scene with another of Busch’s satirical romps, Psycho Beach Party in 2012.
There’s a bitter irony to choosing the show that launched Busch’s career to end their decades-long standing as one of the jewels in the crown of Melbourne’s independent theatre scene. But this is no time for mourning; we’ve got an ancient Succubus to feed, damnit.
The show follows two vampiric queens across the centuries – The Succubus (Jennifer Vuletic) and the recently transformed Virgin (Artemis Ioannides). After Sodom we travel to the Hollywood Golden Age where the pair are suddenly warring starlets à la Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, gunning for the next vehicle to take their celebrity status even higher as well as the next virgin to satiate their shared hunger. By the show’s final act we’re in Las Vegas where the pair meet again at a dance call. In between eight counts, they’ll either bury the hatchet or sharpen it.
This is a joyous swan song for the ambitious company; an hour-long extravaganza packed to the brim with their signature brand of camp design, bolstered by masterful comedic performances across the board.
Vuletic and Ioannides are uproarious as the pair of elegant vamps. Vuletic is an expert physical comedienne; a raised eyebrow, leering glare or simple pose proves enough to make the audience roar with laughter.
Meanwhile, Ioannides signals dramatic character transformations – moving from wide-eyed blonde, poised Hollywood ingénue and Vegas show girl between each act – with a masterful control of voice and comedic timing. Still, the relationship between the pair, dare I say it, could be more Sapphic.
The script pulls back from any explicit lesbian references beyond that of its title (perhaps a result of the original vampires being Drag Queens). The result is that by the final act it’s still unclear whether our ‘Succubi’ are engaging in a mother-daughter dynamic or a centuries-long foreplay; Mommie Dearest or Killing Eve.
Despite occasional moments of campy bombast and irreverence, this production is also not as stylistically confident as previous works from the company. In fact, it feels quite tame. Act Two is especially confused. Part-telenovela, Hammer Horror and silent movie melodrama, it doesn’t quite commit enough to any one pastiche.
In the end it comes across feeling scattered and inconsistent. It doesn’t help that this act is the weakest, and most languorous of the three parts script-wise, or that its languor is unhelpfully emphasized by stale and unchanging lighting during scenes, and noticeably muted sound design.
Still, none of these faults make for an unenjoyable experience. The cast is stacked with incredible performers, and no comedic beat or bawdy entendre is left unturned. Zoe Boesen is an absolute standout as the investigative journalist turned Scottish vampire slayer, McSalazar.
And John Marc Desengano and Tom Dent inject energy and ridiculousness every time they’re together. Once the show finds its footing in its final act – a more confident pastiche of the camp classic Show Girls – it taps into the energy that has always felt unique to this company.
An ensemble leading a Madonna dance number (choreography by Ashlea Pyke) in 80s-style tights before being interrupted by our down-and-out Succubus is just pure unbridled fun. And the set (designed by Nathan Burmeister) works beautifully with its cabaret-style tables set up around a vaudevillian stage complete with a gorgeous silk curtain that raises at the drop of a hat.
There’s enough of the original charm that distinguished Little Ones Theatre as a company to make the applause that follows the end of the show feel bitter sweet; a company that has pioneered queer theatre in Melbourne, bowing out to a sold out room of long-time fans and newbies alike.
There’ll be more theatre like this, I hope. If not from Little Ones, perhaps from someone who has been inspired, awestruck or hilariously outraged by one of their countless classics. There are certainly enough to choose from.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 23 November 2023
Season continues to 3 December 2023
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
Images: Jennifer Vuletic – photo Sarah Walker | The Cast in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom – photo Sarah Walker
Review: Guy Webster