THEATER REVIEW: “She-Rantulas From Outer Space – In 3D!”

Remember those good old days of drive-ins and horroramas, when a carful of teenagers would munch popcorn, drink Pepsi and hoot at the loony (but seldom scary) antics of Vincent Price in B movies with cheesy effects and costumes made from leftovers?

But it wasn’t all hilarity. Back in the mid-1950s, the U.S. was afraid – very afraid – of Communism, the Red Menace that would either “bury us” or take over when American capitalism fell of its own weight and excesses. So we had bomb drills in school, where we crouched under our desks until the all-clear signal sounded, and learned to be fearful of “others” who were not like us.

In 1954, William March wrote “The Bad Seed,” a novel about the genesis of evil which posited a really scary proposition – that evil is genetic and innate, not learned.

But fear not. Local comics Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager want to take you back not to reality but to a camp version of those days, where at the “Diversionary Drive-in” you can immerse yourself in the psyche (and clothes) of that era in the hilarious “She-rantulas From Outer Space In 3D,” which plays through Nov. 17.

Yeager directs the five-member cast, who play about a dozen roles among them. Plot is nowhere near as important as process, but here’s the setup. It’s 1957, and Betty (Phil Johnson) rents a beautifully appointed apartment (designed by Chad Jaeger) from landlady Flora Fairchild (Melinda Gilb) for herself and her 11-year-old pigtailed daughter Suzie (Tony Houck).

Suzie is a sweet little thing with a peculiar interest in tarantulas. It’s an interesting coincidence that Flora’s husband Fred (Fred Harlow) is a nerdy-looking guy who wears the red Shriners-like fez (with a fake spider on top) indicating membership in the Tarrytown Tarantulas.

When Suzie sees it, she launches into a disquieting disquisition about the eight-legged critters, which seems a little odd for an 11-year-old girl. Suddenly, people – mostly women – are found dead. And Suzie seems to be growing extra arms – black, hairy ones.

It’s a funny proposition, but that’s only a small part of the fun. It’s the endless parade of characters, the smart lines, the sheer joyous craziness of the situation and the terrifically versatile acting that will keep you laughing and wanting more.

Gilb shines as she morphs into six characters, from landlady Flora to Spanish-spouting Latina maid Maria. My favorite is Avon lady Gladys (“nothing calms my spirit quite like makeup”), who doubles as a Christian counselor (“Be not afraid,” she shouts at the frightened Betty).

Collins is a hoot as randy Harry the handyman, who unsubtly tries to move in on Betty, and later as the pregnant Harriet.

Johnson’s Betty is a study in ’50s motherhood in dress and demeanor, with added growing concern about the people in Suzie’s vicinity who turn up dead.

Houck is absolutely right as Suzie, with her little gingham dresses, long (dare I say spidery?) braids and ability to drag body bags around the stage.

Harlow’s Fred is properly clueless, his Frieda not very pretty but very funny.

Johnson and Yeager call this effort a “fartire” – a combination of farce and satire. I just call it a really fun night in the theater.

The details

“She-Rantulas From Outer Space – In 3D!” plays through Nov. 17 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd.

Thursday through Saturday and Monday, Nov. 11 at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.