In “Re-Designing Women,” four women running an interior design building have something very special in common.
It turns out they’re all really men.
Still, “Re-Designing Women,” opening this week at Mid-City Theatre, is not a spoof about men in drag performing women’s roles. This is not “To Wong Foo.”
“We are playing the characters as if we were cast in these parts. There is no comment anywhere in this production about us being men,” one of the show’s stars, Jeffery Roberson (a.k.a. Varla Jean Merman), said with a laugh.
“Re-Designing Women,” a parody of the CBS sitcom “Designing Women” that ran from 1986-1993, opens at Mid-City on May 23 and runs through June 2. In addition to Roberson, who plays the role of the TV show’s Charlene, the cast includes three other local favorites in the roles of TV show’s main characters: Ricky Graham (Julia Sugarbaker), who is also directing the show; Brian Peterson (Suzanne Sugarbaker); and Jack Long (Mary Jo). Some of the minor characters from the TV series are performed by puppets, including Anthony, the Sugarbaker Design firm’s streetwise, ex-con deliveryman.
For those unfamiliar with the TV series, “Designing Women” centered on the working and personal lives of four Southern women in an Atlanta-based interior design firm. Their widely divergent personalities and the interplay between them, which often included commentary on controversial social issues, helped account for the show’s popularity and longevity.
“We’ve taken the best bits from the original scripts of favorite episodes and kind of mashed them together,” Graham said.
He noted that the same cast from “Re-Designing Women” was in a show earlier this year titled “Shut Up Sweet Charlotte,” a parody of the Bette Davis movie “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” “We’re known locally for playing female characters and doing takeoffs on iconic movies. So now we’re doing this with a television series,” Graham added.
However, according to Roberson, “We’re not really making fun of ‘Designing Women.’ At the time the show was airing it had just four main characters and they were all women. This hadn’t been done too much before. Most of the episodes were about Southern genteel feminism and the feminist movement. About how women are treated by men and issues like that. We left a lot of that in the production we’re doing.”
Some of the commentary includes the women’s takes on beauty contests: why they find them degrading and they question why they don’t have them for men. The local production includes highlights from three separate “Designing Women” episodes, including a trip the women take to New Orleans.
The New Orleans skit is interspersed with “commercial breaks,” featuring actual footage of iconic New Orleans businesses advertising locally at that time. These include Seafood City (with Al Scramuzza), the “Special Man” from Frankie & Johnny’s Furniture and Becky Allen as the Universal Furniture “Chairwoman.”
As Varla Jean Merman, Roberson has performed in London, Sydney, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Provincetown and in numerous local theaters. He was most recently seen in the award-winning production “Mildred Fierce,” winner of Boston’s prestigious Eliot Norton Award.
Graham is a New Orleans favorite, most recently performing with Varla Jean in their “Christmas Carol” spoof, “Scrooge in Rouge,” which played in Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Atlanta and San Diego. Peterson and Long are members of the New Orleans-based theatrical troupe Running With Scissors. They have done many parodies of iconic movies such as “The Birds,” “A Place in the Sun” and “Imitation of Life.”
“We’ve had a lot of fun putting it all together for this show,” Roberson said. “Parts of it are funny, but ‘Designing Women’ was not a typical sitcom where every line is funny. It was more about situations and how the characters react to those situations. It is an appreciation of the struggles strong women go through to exist in a male-dominated society, but still with a lot of laughs. That’s what we do best.”
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