This year marks the 50th anniversary of Notes on “Camp,” Susan Sontag’s classic Partisan Review essay attempting to define an aesthetic sensibility she describes as “a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques” (speaking of private codes, that means gays). Camp, Sontag writes, is based on a playful and ironic yet genuine appreciation of the artificial and the exaggerated—stylized gangster movies, say, or certain melodramatic novels. Its connoisseurs are modern-day dandies (gays again) who have discovered that “good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.”
She sure could suck the fun out of a subject, couldn’t she? Give the University of Chicago grad some credit, though, for recognizing Camp as one of the “great creative sensibilities”—a necessary middle way between high-art seriousness and avant-garde extremism. Half a century on, you don’t see much of either of those two any more, while Camp has become downright mainstream. Just look at Lady Gaga, American Horror Story, anything RuPaul, the entirety of Bravo’s lineup, and so on. In many ways, we’re living in the golden age of bad taste.
Given Camp’s overt theatricality, you can usually find, at any given time, at least one onstage offering that fits the bill. This month, however, include an unusually high number of campy shows, and at every level of the food chain, from storefront to national tours.
Here are four of the best bets in Chicago:
Buyer and Cellar
For Sontag, the creators of what she calls “pure Camp” don’t know they’re making something campy. On the contrary, they’re dead serious. It’s only the discerning outsider who sniffs out the ridiculous.
A case in point: My Passion for Design, Barbra Streisand’s coffee-table book about interior decorating. In it, the star describes the warren of old-timey shops she had installed in the basement of her Los Angeles mansion in order to store old movie costumes and other mementoes.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins used that as a jumping-off point for this one-man show, starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) as an out-of-work actor who takes a job in Barbra’s basement and learns something about fame, compulsion, and loneliness at the top.
Through 6/15. $35–$75. Broadway Playhouse, 175 E Chestnut. broadwayinchicago.com
The undisputed king of Camp in Chicago is David Cerda, whose Hell in a Handbag Productions specializes in parodic homages to old movies, pop-culture flotsam, and late-career Joan Crawford.
Up next, the group revisits Cerda’s 2006 musical spoof of black-and-white women-in-prison movies. In typical Handbag fashion, a good percentage of the women are played by men in drag. Expect a lot of hardboiled dialogue and a raft of lesbian-related double entendres.
5/28–7/13. $18–$37. Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont. handbagproductions.org
When it opened in 1988, the musical adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel about a bullied telekinetic teen quickly became one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history, closing after just 16 previews and five performances—to the tune of $8 million. The reviews were scathing; audience members booed. A retooled Off Broadway version in 2012 held on for 46 performances.
The show certainly has some of the hallmarks of a Camp classic: over-the-top material, ham-fisted execution, failure. Now Bailiwick Chicago supplies a chance to judge for yourself whether it’s good, bad, or so bad it’s good.
5/29–7/12. $15–$40. Victoary Gardens Theater, 2433 N Lincoln. bailiwickchicago.com
5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
There’s a strong nostalgic aspect to a lot of Camp. With the passage of time, what was once ordinary can come to seem outlandish. Wholesome Eisenhower-era values are sent up in The New Colony’s cult hit, in which a ladies’ quiche breakfast is disrupted by a Soviet nuclear attack, leading to a series of now-or-never sapphic revelations. This remount of Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder’s 2011 script follows an Off-Broadway run in 2012.