Southern parody kicks off Friday

‘Hell’s Belles’

What happens when a Union soldier is wounded behind Confederate lines, deserts his regiment and is rescued by a group of Southern belles holed up in a dilapidated plantation house? Will he make it out alive?

Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll just have to see “Hell’s Belles” to find out.

The original play debuts Friday at Mid-City Theatre for a three-weekend run. The production, staged by the local group Running With Scissors, is based, in part, on the 1971 Clint Eastwood film “The Beguiled,” which was filmed at Ashland Belle-Helene Plantation in Burnside.

However, the key here is “in part.” According to Richard Read, who handles Running With Scissors’ promotion, “Our favorite thing to do is take a serious drama and to make it as ridiculous and comical as possible. This is very definitely comedy.”

The movie was based on a 1966 novel written by Thomas P. Cullinan, originally titled “A Painted Devil.” In typical gothic novel fashion, the presence of a lone man among a cadre of lonely women causes rivalries, deceit and jealousies, eventually leading to violence and tragedy.

In the Running With Scissors version, the old mansion, which once housed the French Finishing School where proper Southern maidens learned gentility and etiquette, has degenerated into little more than a reform school. It now houses three of the “bawdiest, cattiest, downright orneriest gals the South has ever seen,” including spinster sisters Flossie and Fannie French, who rule the roost.

“This is where the comedy part comes in,” Read said. “Actually more of a parody. We do a lot of parodies, and like all of our parodies, we throw everything in but the kitchen sink. I watched the rehearsals and I laughed a lot.”

“Hell’s Belles” stars Kyle Daigrepont, Yvette Hargis, Jack Long, Brian Peterson, Lisa Picone and Dorian Rush, nearly all of whom are regular members of the Running With Scissors ensemble. Hargis is in her first production with the company.

Read, whose full-time job is director of marketing for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Institute, described the Running With Scissors ensemble as “a small, itinerant, medium-tightly knit group of six or seven people who work together on productions on a regular basis,” pulling in other actors as needed.

“We prefer to work in small theaters where stages are small and we try to keep our casts small and simple. We have no home base. We just go from one theater to another.”

Elaborating on the group’s modus operandi, Read said, “We tend to work with the same people over and over again. It makes life easier for an itinerant company like ours. It helps to have a stable core of people coming together to work again and again and again. We know each other. We know how one another thinks. What each other’s preferences and capabilities are.”

Occasionally, RWS will take on other cast members who may be more experienced in a particular role. Sometimes, it’s done as a sort of a test to see if it’s someone they may want to work with on future productions, he said.

“Our process is a little unusual,” Read said. “We start with a script, then cut, add and embellish over time so that it is exactly what you want from a show. This one is short, about an hour and a half, and it’s funny. All of our actors are hams by nature. They just get up there on stage and let the magic happen.”