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Twenty-three years have passed since The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards—long enough that it might not be the first thing you think of upon encountering the exclamatory abbreviation Silence! So for clarity’s sake, you are herewith advised that Silence! Is! A stage parody of Jonathan Demme’s movie of Thomas Harris’ novel…
….about a female FBI trainee on the trail of a killer who’s sewing himself a “woman suit” from the skins of the plus-sized young ladies he’s abducted and starved. You may recall that to catch that sicko, she must bargain for the aid of an even more dangerous sociopath, the already-imprisoned Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter.
Anyway, now it has songs! At least a couple of which, derived directly from lines in the movie, are blue enough to make The Book of Mormon look like, well, the Book of Mormon. It’s offensive to all, but with malice towards none. (Though Lambs’ possibly transgender serial killer Buffalo Bill—here played by Tom Story in a wig no worse than the one Ted Levine wore in the movie—would be subject to considerable scrutiny were the film released today.)
There’s probably a hard limit on how much outrage a show can generate when it features a chorus line dressed in plush lambs’ ears and bedazzled lambs’-hoof mittens. Its sensibility is deeply Borscht Belt, right down to every physical description of a Buffalo Bill victim being wearily followed up with “How fat was she?” The hoariness of the jokes are the joke.
Laura Jordan, stepping into Jodie Foster’s pantsuit (and her Wesht Virginia accent) as FBI ingénue Clarice Starling, is a game lead, threading the needle of committing fully to the part while also looking like she’s embarrassed to be a party to gags this dopey. That Tally Sessions (that name!) in no way resembles Anthony Hopkins somehow makes his vocal impression of Hopkins-as-Lecter funnier. (Both Foster and Hopkins won Oscars for the performances satirized here.)
Shock musicals like this tend to mock the form of musical theater more than the individual text being skewered. The composers are brothers Jon and Al Kaplan, whose “legolambs” YouTube channel is the natural enemy of editors and bosses everywhere, featuring clever, sub-three-minute musical parodies of most of the Arnold Schwarzenegger filmography, plus other genre classics like RoboCop and The Thing. Silence! began as a YouTube short, too; one the Kaplans eventually fleshed out—er, expanded—into a show that played the New York International Fringe Festival a decade ago and enjoyed an off-Broadway run circa 2011–2013.
Staged in the fourth-floor 2ndStage space that Studio Theatre converted into a bar for its hit production of Murder Ballad last spring, Silence! fits the room like a glove (a regular one made of animal flesh, or some synthetic material that harms only the environment). The bar has been redressed from Murder Ballad’s Black Cat Red Room-inspired look into something more like a high-end lounge, with framed stills from Demme’s Lambs on the walls. The novelty cocktails—the Hannibal Nectar, Lotion In The Basket, etc.—will run you a reasonable $8.
A generation ago, the film’s characterization of its heroine was progressive, and the skepticism and hostility of her mostly male colleagues was just another obstacle for Starling to overcome. But Silence! lampoons the movie for being retrograde, with a whole riff about how it marginalizes Ardelia Mapp, Starling’s black friend at the FBI Academy. The woman who has that role in Silence!, Awa Sal Secka, is silenced no more, earning a bedazzled red dress and a show-stealing production number all her own.
So there you are: Silence! dares to chide Hollywood for soft racism, while mocking lesbians and large women without mercy. It’s a big, queasy pile of contradictions, one you might not feel so great about enjoying so much. In that way especially, it’s faithful to its source.
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