Giving notes after a rehearsal run-through of his latest show, Ryan Landry is characteristically blunt. One of the young actors he’s working with for the first time on this production did not quite belt out the lead vocals of one number to Landry’s satisfaction.
“Honey,” Landry says in his familiar tone of good-humored brusqueness, “you’re being paid to perform here, and I want a [expletive] performance!”
The cast is seated along the lip of the stage down in the basement portion of the Machine nightclub in the Fenway, where Landry and his troupe Gold Dust Orphans have been producing their brash, irreverent shows for two decades. True to the company’s aesthetic, this new show is a ribald mash-up of the musical “Grease” and a grab bag of characters and situations from Greek mythology.
Landry wrote the book and lyrics for this concoction, called “Greece,” and the music comes from a number of sources. Only two songs from “Grease” are in play; the pretty rockin’ score otherwise is heavy on 1950s-evoking tunes by the likes of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. “Greece” begins performances on Thursday.
There are plenty of sex jokes, often borne from an LGBTQ-friendly perspective. Stashed around the room are semi-finished set pieces, like a large cyclops head and a partially formed Pegasus . . . or as this production has it, Pegasissy.
Longtime collaborator Larry Coen is credited as director, though he and Landry have a collaborative process. During rehearsal, Landry barks out instructions for sound cues, gives the occasional between-scene note to actors, and occasionally runs up onstage to play an armless Venus or Elvis himself. Coen, who also has stage time as a thundering Zeus, watches everything carefully and finds moments to offer big-picture guidance.
Earlier, seated together for an interview, Landry and Coen each discuss the often-broad humor and vivid theatrical colors that are the glue of a Gold Dust Orphans production.
“The roots of the company are in vaudeville and burlesque and Dean Martin roasts,” Coen says. “They’re old forms, where it’s the job of the performer to hold the audience’s attention through sheer force of will. A lot of other theater is rooted in MFA programs.”
Layered under these broad strokes, though, must be real sentiment, Landry says. The idea is to create something genuinely affecting with the help of one-liners that would have fit into the routine of a comedian working the Borscht Belt.
“You build up this ridiculous [expletive], and then you punch them right in the [expletive] gut with something that is so true and maybe tragic. Just when they think, ‘Hey, they just punched me in the gut,’ you hit them again with a laugh,” Landry says.
The cast of “Greece” includes company regulars Penny Champagne, Qya Marie, and Tim Lawton, but is filled out with newcomers to the group. Looking for a change of pace and a younger cast more suitable to play teenagers, Landry and Coen did something unheard-of in the world of Gold Dust Orphans, where the house style has been honed by a core of familiar actors: They held an audition.
One of the newcomers is Mac Leslie, who says he saw the company’s “Murder on the Polar Express” and said to himself: I want to do that! Leslie plays Danny Zeuso, based on the character played by John Travolta in the “Grease” film. (Landry has never seen the stage musical, though he read its script.) Zeuso is leader of a teen gang known as the Titans (as in, “Clash of . . .”), and his relationship with Sandy (Taryn Cagnina) will undergo the withering scrutiny of teen social ringleader Brizo (Vanessa Calantropo), the jealousy of Hades (Tim Lawton), and supernatural tests by the likes of Medusa.
Working in the world of Landry is a trial by fire, Leslie says. In his first rehearsal, he thought he might have been performing too loud and talking too quickly, but the first bit of feedback he got was to be louder and go faster. He cites one scene when Landry advised him to change moods quickly and make it play as sad as possible.
“It’s really hard to make it truthful. Honestly though, I trust it. I trust the style because the show is so [stylized] and it’s such a cartoon. It works when it’s working, and when it’s not working you can feel it,” the actor says.
Coen seems enlivened by this rough-and-tumble aesthetic.
“Somehow a rule has come up in theater where you’re not allowed to say what you want when you’re directing people. You have to use clever language and be a horse whisperer and lead them instinctively. It’s all in direction. I think one of the things people have liked about working with the Orphans is that it’s: ‘No. It didn’t work. Do it again.’ ”
On this afternoon in the basement of Machine, some of the show’s more flashy production elements, including a group of dancers and that flying Pegasissy, have yet to be added to the mix.
But more often than not, it’s working. And by the time opening night comes along, it seems likely that Landry will successfully get from these actors the [expletive] performance he’s looking for.
Presented by Gold Dust Orphans. At: Machine, 1254 Boylston St., Boston, May 4-June 4. Tickets: $39.99-$100, www.brownpapertickets.com