IN THE HEART of every citizen there is a drag queen just yammering to get out and do a big ol' false-eyelash-batting, hair tossing, lip-synching show-stopper. We have always known this about boys, both homo and hetero, but what about regulation-issue-vagina-toting straight gals? What does it look like when women are in women's drag? Precisely the same as always, according to Camille Collins, drag-queen den mother of the Foxy Tan Revue, the (almost) all-girl, all drag, lyrical lounge extravaganza that's found a home at the Gay 90's on Tuesday nights. Collins, one of the top drag performers in the Midwest, has no problem with women lip-synching in a gay bar. "It's theatre," he says, with martini-dry phrasing. "It's all drag."
The revue is the brainchild and vehicle of Heather Wilson, who, as Foxy Tan, a powerful 1-2 combination of Pam Grier and Bette Midler, emerges weekly from a giant (bearded) clam while shaking the audience into screaming submission. She's not afraid to take on the big icons, shamelessly blasting off with Etta James's "Come to Mama."
Foxy's cast and crew are all alumnae from the movie Homo Heights, with onstage patter written by Heights director Sarah Moore. And like the movie, the budget for the revue is practically nonexistent. "This is dirt-cheap theatre, baby," says Wilson. Dirt cheap or not, there is considerable backstage pride when Wilson talks about their "audacity and blatant self-promotion," having earned the members of the production "actual parking and cocktail money."
The audacity that Wilson is talking about, however, is not the kind you get in a typical drag show. There is none of the mixture of adoration and mockery you hear humming just below the disco thump and show-tune trumpets of your average male-to-female revue. According to Susan Sontag, "camp" is funny precisely because it contains elements of tragedy and anger; when the girls of the 90's act like, well, "girls," the Sontag-ian empathy-equation between performer and audience would seem to twist and chafe like an errant girdle.
Yet the gay, mostly male audience responds with the usual elation. There's not a trace of hostility, even when a performer publicly snuggles with her boyfriend during a break. Except for the ironic overlay, it's an entirely sunny show. Only Philip Park, the cast's single male member (so to speak), taps into camp's traditional dark side, with his hag-drag rendition of a drunken, mascara-smeared floozy doing a staggering torch number while falling over chairs and tables.
The adoration of unloved, rejected, and dramatically self-destructive divas has always been drag's most interesting phenomenon. If Zola was, in some sense, Madame Bovary, some drag queens are Judy Garland, reveling in their own tragic status. On the flip side there's a splendid, if somewhat nasty, arrogance to some drag numbers--something that almost hisses an implicit message to any females in the audience: "I'm more woman then you'll ever be, honey."
Still, there is a sensibility to this kind of clowning around that transcends issues of sexuality and remains firmly rooted in a sort of gender-neutral love of excess and joyfully bad taste. Moore, a former circus clown herself, is tapping right into the best part of drag in her script, especially in the "Ask Foxy"section. "Dear Foxy: Is it true that in 1978, while on tour with JoAnn Whorley, your triple-stack, double-lacquered Hawaiian bouffant hairpiece sucked up a violinist from the pit and swallowed him whole? Please 'fess up if it's true. Hair is getting frightening." The message here: You don't have to be of any particular sexual orientation to appreciate a well crafted big-hair slam.
But even in full-throttle satire, dressed up in pastel wigs doing a vacuum cleaner humping dance, something disturbingly genuine peeks through the artifice; these dancers have biologically female bodies disguised by boas and spotlights as even more female bodies. It's a different construction from that of watching men in women's clothes, but no less electrically sexual. Picture, for example, an intelligent grown woman doing Peggy Lee's "Fever" in a nurse's costume. When men camp, they are playing a public game of secret dress-up, like the one they might have played as small children--children whose heinies were forfeit if a parent threw open the bedroom door at the wrong moment. But some little girls are actually given nurse's outfits for their birthdays.
It's only when you're a big girl that you find out why the idea of "dressing up like a lady" is so attractive: There's nothing more compelling than absurdity. You can dress up in high heels and flowery aprons all you want, but it may be that "womanhood" is still best expressed by Heather Wilson, doing Eartha Kitt's "Daddy," dressed up in a big pink bunny suit, ears perked and nose atwitch.