The phrase “fantastic sensory overload” could describe most of the shows put on by Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans — especially when spoken with a ribald giggle. But Jessica Barstis is just talking about their rehearsals.
“You can’t get into a room with a bunch of fabulous drag queens and not have a ton of stuff going on at one time,” says Barstis, an Orphans newcomer who stars in Landry’s latest, “It’s a Horrible Life,” playing in the basement at Machine through Dec. 22. “The personalities are all so big, but they mesh so well together. You sort of have to figure out how to catch up and absorb everything that’s going on.”
Barstis plays Mary Bailey opposite Paul Melendy as George Bailey in Landry’s raunchy-yet-affectionate musical parody of Frank Capra’s 1947 Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Landry himself puts on a big green costume to play Orphans holiday staple Mrs. Grinchley, who has previously appeared in “How Mrs. Grinchley Swiped Christmas” and “Mrs. Grinchley’s Christmas Carol.” Here she stands in for the villainous Mr. Potter from the film. Orphans regulars like Penny Champayne and Olive Another play a variety of outrageous characters in Bedbug Falls. (Do you remember Jesus, Hitler, or Liberace in the original film? No?)
The show, directed by James P. Byrne, follows the outlines of the movie, with George Bailey feeling suicidal over problems at the Building and Loan Association and getting a glimpse of what life would have been like for his neighbors without him. But this is Landry’s world. Suffice to say that Mrs. Grinchley’s profit-making ideas surpass even the miserly Mr. Potter’s — outlet stores! The horror! — and that Mary Bailey must take a turn earning her living on a stripper pole.
For nearly 20 years Landry and his team have parodied the classic films he loves, as well as TV and plays, cranking the psychosexual conflict up to 11 to produce giddy, cheerfully smutty comedy that verges on the surreal. Main characters are usually played by men in drag, including Landry himself. The Orphans’ low, low-budget aesthetic adds another layer; in “The Gulls,” Landry’s parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the actors simulate avian attacks by pummeling themselves with stuffed sea gulls tied to sticks. Somehow it works, and taking in an Orphans show is a mandatory stop on any Boston theater tour.
The Orphans’ working method is a little different too, says Barstis, a 23-year-old Boston Conservatory student majoring in musical theater performance whose credits include the recent “Clubland” at Oberon.
“They sort of have the whole thing down to a science, where Jimmy [Byrne] comes in and gives you blocking and emotional beats,” she says. “And then Ryan comes through and says, ‘That’s fine, I love all this emotional stuff that’s happening, but now you have to speed it up way faster because we have sound cues to meet and we have to move the show along because the audiences we have love louder-faster-funnier.’
“At first I was a little bit overwhelmed,” Barstis says, “and then I was like, wait a second, these guys know exactly what they’re doing, why should I worry about it?”
Landry’s theatrical life this year has been anything but horrible. The Huntington Theatre Company produced “Ryan Landry’s ‘M’ ” on the big stage at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion in the spring. A $50,000 Kickstarter campaign helped him and his troupe take “Mildred Fierce” to New York City in the fall, drawing celeb fans he says included Alan Cumming, Michael Kors, and Slash.
“It really made us feel validated in a way,” Landry says. “Not that Boston doesn’t validate us, but the whole thing sold out! In New York! I didn’t put one poster up.”
Although the costs, notably housing and theater rentals, were high enough that the troupe cleared only about $500, he says, he’s planning to find a way to bring “The Gulls” to New York next year.
Melendy was a little better prepared for the Orphans experience than Barstis, having played one of the leads in “M” last spring, even though that wasn’t an Orphans show.
“Since becoming an actor out of college, I’ve wanted to become an Orphan,” Melendy, 31, says. “How does that happen? There’s no answer, it just sort of happens. Like any mythological beast or artifact, like the sword of Gryffindor, it just sort of comes to you.”
Turns out, one way in is to pass the auditions for a lead role in “M” in front of Landry. Then you find Landry has taken a shine to you.
However raunchy an Orphans show may get, there’s a certain Capra-esque spirit behind it. “Everybody’s there for the idea of the show,” Melendy says. “Everybody’s got dual roles, everybody’s painting the sets when they’re not rehearsing. It’s a completely different process in that way, which is what I find uplifting and memorable.
“It’s perfect, especially this time of year, when we see people getting stabbed over Xbox Ones at Walmart and trampled to death on Black Friday,” he says. “There are bigger things going on, and this is one of them.”
Asian takeout at Goethe
The latest border-crossing effort by young theater director Guy Ben-Aharon takes place Sunday at the Goethe-Institut Boston under the German Stage banner. “The Golden Dragon” by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig has its New England premiere in a staged reading in English with a cast of Nael Nacer, Patrick Shea, Paula Plum, Phil Tayler, and Tiffany Chen. They play 17 characters in a drama set in an Asian takeout restaurant. Ben-Aharon is also the founding artistic director of the Israeli Stage program, and has French Stage and Swiss Stage programs underway. Tickets are $10 for the 7 p.m. performance at the Goethe-Institut, 170 Beacon St. Call 617-262-6050.
Update: This story was updated to note that “It’s a Horrible Life” will close on Dec. 22 instead of Dec. 29.