The Birch is Back

Cabaret chameleon Melissa Birch takes the kind of performance risks that can come back to bite you in the ass--literally.

A tough crowd can be murder, and some performers respond by making sure the noose is fastened securely. They get hostile, apologetic, or desperate; they clam up, speed up, or give up. Melissa Birch is better than that. She faces a lukewarm audience with an equanimity that's as fun to watch as a second encore. She's not dying or bombing this night at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, but she's not exactly knocking 'em dead, either. None of those martial or morbid ways of describing a gig's success or failure--language that seems to treat every show like a stop on a Bob Hope USO tour--fits for how gracefully the singer-performance artist is fomenting nonchalance.

Oddball revivalist Jack Norton has tapped Birch to serve as an emcee between his sets of hot jazz, puppetry, and bad jokes. Norton has been having an off night, and the crowd is a bit leaden. They might not be primed for an improvisational performer in drag whose monologue is frequently suspended by long pauses and some diligent toothpick wielding that must be after a firmly entrenched shred of corn.

Birch is playing one of her troika of cabaret characters, Richie Itch, a lovable numbskull from Atlantic City, though his Joe Pesci-meets-Rocky Balboa accent could work as a general caricature of an East Coast proletarian. His résumé includes working on a lobster boat in Maine and driving a school bus. He's currently on disability after a Sweet Hereafter-like school bus accident that he'd "rather not discuss." With his thrift-store evening clothes--tuxedo pants, cummerbund, billowing red shirt--one expects an off-color joke or a drunken rendition of "The Lady Is a Tramp." But Richie just talks. He gives glimpses of his druggy past, trails off in mid-sentence, breaks an awkward silence with a drawn-out "buuhht." After 10 minutes or so, he invites questions, an offer that's greeted with another outpouring of indifference.

"What is the nature of your act?" I call out. This is the first time I've seen Richie, and I'm genuinely unsure. He riffs for a moment on the nature of nature, then comes clean. "I don't really have an act," he says. Long pause. "I ran track in high school."

 

"I did a benefit for the One Voice Mixed Chorus in a church in Edina," says Birch a few days later over lunch at the BLB. "They all thought I was on LSD, but they had a great time." New crowds, even tough crowds like the one at the Jack Norton show, can be a treat for Birch, whose work seems to thrive on an air of mild discomfort. Still, it's probably best to see Birch on her home turf, which for a bit over a year has been the BLB's Red Curtain Cabaret. Birch is the curator, host, and featured singer for the Tuesday night showcase of music, dance, puppetry, experimental theater, and whatever her guests opt to present. She chooses a theme for each month--say, country-western songs and culture, or next month's homage to Berlin cabaret of the 1920s.

As a performer, Birch tends to be eccentric, voluble, loudly dressed, and risqué, all qualities that seem to contrast with her normal comportment. Offstage, she favors well-worn jeans and T-shirts, is friendly but somewhat guarded, and chooses her words carefully. She's especially pensive when recounting her move to New York in '97. She left the Twin Cities in an effort to get a master's degree in performance studies from NYU, an ultimately abandoned idea that she now dismisses as "stupid" and "very expensive."

She resettled in Minneapolis a few weeks after September 11. Since coming back, she has been focusing more on singing and serving as a kind of underground arts ambassador than on the performance art and character work that defined her stuff in the past. She's still figuring out the makeup of her post-return audience.

"More and more the gay men are turning out," she says. "I had a huge lesbian following when I was here before, which has kind of gone away for whatever reason." She suspects that some of her lesbian audience has been siphoned off by Dykes Do Drag, a long-running showcase of gender-swapping music and performance that regularly plays at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "I think Dykes Do Drag is a great show," she says. "But I also think it's a social event. It's a place for people to dress up and be seen and not be challenged. I just know that I don't really put on those gay events."

Before her sojourn in New York, Birch performed almost exclusively as Yesterday, a boozy cabaret singer with a sordid past and a runaway sex drive. Yesterday is a female character, but one Birch considers as drag as Richie. "I'm a pretty gender-neutral person on the street. Especially when I was first doing her--when you put me in four-inch heels and a wig and a dress, it was odd. It's still really odd, and some audiences--they don't really know. It's femme drag. For a woman who's a lot more feminine in her life, it wouldn't be drag. But because I do it, it's contradictory."

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