Brookland Artspace Lofts Studio – Dance Place

Remaining Performances
(tickets available here):

Saturday, July 11 at 4:15 p.m.
Sunday, July 12 at 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 14 at 6:15 p.m.

They say: Tammy Faye Bakker was the sweetheart of Christian TV in the 1980s, until it all came crashing down. In a frenzy of leopard print and eyelashes, she brings back the men in her life for one final TV show.

Joshua’s take: Telling an earnest story about a camp figure is no easy task. But even among camp figures, the late Tamara Faye LaValley Bakker Messner is an easy target for anyone looking to squeeze cheap laughs out of kitsch pageantry. The flamboyant Tammy Faye helped create modern televangelism with her first husband, Jim Bakker; when their pop-Christian empire collapsed, she emerged from personal and financial scandal as a reality TV star and unlikely gay icon.

Such a biography doesn’t exactly lend itself to intimate character study, but Brick Monkey Theater’s production of Tammy Faye’s Final Audition imagines the interior world of this relentlessly public figure as well as anyone could hope. The result is a funny, entertaining, and surprisingly moving look at the real life behind an unreal celebrity, staged as affectionate satire without condescension or scorn.

Final Audition is structured around the dying Faye’s (Shelley Delaney) auditioning of a new and final talk show, which she hopes to get greenlit from an unseen producer who may or may not be the Almighty. The show is called Tammy Faye Wins At Life!, and its special guests are the influential men from her past (all played by David Haugen). This TV-saturated deathbed vision is occasionally interrupted by her second husband, Roe Messner, who wants Tammy to stop speaking with her invisible audience and join him in their domestic routine.

Tammy’s first guest, her post-scandal co-host Jim J., defines her appeal in gay culture: “You’re the epitome of camp without knowing that you’re camp, which is the best kind of camp!” Delaney has clearly taken this line to heart in her performance, radiating drama-queen energy when she needs to but never descending into caricature. Instead, she balances a spot-on imitation of Tammy Faye the public spectacle against an authentic, relatable character: a conflicted mother, wife, and daughter who since childhood has manipulated religious fervor to navigate a fraught personal life. Haugen does a fine job of differentiating his many roles, which in addition to Messner and Jim J. include Tammy’s son Jamie, a junkie-turned-radical pastor who supplies some harrowing tales of televised childhood, and of course Jim Bakker himself, whose sparring with Tammy helps shift the play into more dramatic territory (but not before some welcome weirdness with puppets).

If there’s one fault in Merri Beichler’s brisk, witty script, it’s that a few of these interview scenes occasionally get bogged down in biographical exposition. Each guest has a chunk of backstory on Tammy Faye to deliver for the audience’s benefit, and while it’s usually needed information, it slows the momentum of otherwise compelling scenes.

Maybe that’s why Final Audition is at its best when it’s just Tammy alone, talking to God and her adoring audience and then, later, only to God. What’s most remarkable about this play, and about Delaney’s performance, is that it treats Tammy’s faith seriously. The audience can relish gaudy makeup and tacky outfits for much of the performance, but is left at the end to consider their own mortality — inviting, in a twist, the kind of serious reflection the real Tammy’s ministry could never inspire.

See it if: You recall Tammy Faye’s heyday and like high camp with a helping of real drama.

Skip it if: You’ve never heard of Tammy Faye are too busy with Fringe to look her up on the Internet.