If the Suit Fits

Tennessee Williams's beautiful South: Actors Charles Schuminski, Buffy Sedlachek, and Barbara Kingsley, dressed for misery

Russ King (a.k.a. Miss Richfield) stood in front of the Hennepin Center for the Arts this past Friday, surrounded by teenagers on their way to the Korn concert. King wore nondescript street clothes, so Minnesota's premier drag performer attracted little attention from the mullet-headed youths around him. King had just completed a performance in the Outward Spiral Theatre Company's production of Ladies and Gentlemen, and he seemed exhausted. Nonetheless, his sardonic face bore a broad smile, even as the throng of teenagers shoved past him.

"Have you seen Two Weeks With the Queen?" he asked, referring to the Illusion Theater's current musical, playing six floors above Ladies and Gentleman. I had, and commented that the two plays share similarities in that both include gay characters that must deal with losing a lover. "Well, it's gay theater," King said, laughing. "Somebody's always got to die."

But death is just one of many dramatic turns in Emma Donoghue's Ladies and Gentlemen. The play tells the historical story of Annie Hindle, a female vaudeville performer from the 19th Century who specialized in dressing in men's clothes while crooning simple love songs. Hindle's impersonation of a man was so uncannily accurate that she received adoring fan mail from female audience members, beseeching her to reveal the truth--that she was, in fact, a man. Jodi Kellogg plays Hindle as an aging dandy, and the story follows her from dressing room to dressing room as her act moves from novelty to freakishness in the public eye. Meanwhile, behind the show curtain, her male and female lovers betray her, or die on her.

Amid all this, Kellogg affects an atmosphere of world-weariness that is a sharp contrast to the naive love songs she spontaneously croons ("My heart is not designed for doggerel," she complains). Were she not a woman in male drag, her hammy performances of popular ballads would seem unusually tame in a carnival-like revue that includes a performer called "The Human Fish." But hers was a drag act, its appeal entirely based on the thrill of watching one gender's impersonation of the other. Intriguingly, the success of Hindle's act was the verisimilitude of her impersonation, while the success of male drag acts was (and often still is) in their ridiculousness. In the play, Hindle's understated act is set off against a male drag act performed by Russ King. He flutters his hands and rolls his eyes in a grotesque parody of female mannerisms, singing out, "They call me 'My dear Nelly.'"

To King's credit, he succeeds in revealing a profound sense of the absurdity of his character. Describing an attempted seduction at the hands of a manager, King's character shrugs it off, saying, "Nothing happened. I moved my thigh, his hand fell off, I went back to eating my ice cream." His delivery of this line is wonderfully dry--he presents his character as bearing daily indignities, but bearing them lightly. In a performance circuit that includes cancanning kittens, Kellogg and King's characters attempt the impossible: to grow old gracefully.

Drag acts have survived vaudeville and improved with age. There is no apparent reason for casting Charles Schuminski as a female prostitute in the Jungle Theater's Talk to Me Like the Rain, except that the production uses a cast of three in its presentation of four one-acts by Tennessee Williams, and to have cast a woman in the role would have necessitated bringing in another actor. Schuminski plays the role soberly, however, without a trace of parody or affectation. He is, quite simply, excellent.

The one-acts ("Talk to Me Like the Rain," "Hello from Bertha," "Lady of Larkspur Lotion," and "This Property is Condemned") are fine pieces of writing, exploring a variety of demimonde characters as they wrestle with alcoholism, madness, and death--although in every case these short scenes feel like pencil sketches of ideas that Williams would explore in greater detail in his full-length plays. "Larkspur Lotion," for example, tells of two pathetic creatures in a French Quarter rooming house who passionately defend the lies that make up their lives. Hints of A Streetcar Named Desire abound, such as when an alcoholic writer defends a deluded prostitute with an impassioned cry of "There are no lies but the lies that are stuffed in the mouth by the hard-knuckled hand of need." Blanche DuBois couldn't have said it better.

The script is witty, though, and the cast (including Schuminski, Buffy Sedlachek, and Barbara Kingsley) brings a grandness to its characters' eccentricities that just save them from being world-class losers. It is a salvation that is rarely found in Williams's longer writing, which usually ends on a profoundly pessimistic note (at the performance I attended, an audience member wondered out loud if Williams had ever had a good day in his life). "I think that you're drawing an awful lot on your imagination," Schuminski declares at one point, but in these one-acts imagination has the power, however briefly, to save.

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