Ruthless! Creator & Star Marvin Laird Recalls The 5 Best Drag Performances He’s Ever Seen
August 27th, 2014
by Josh Ferri
Marvin Laird and Joey Paley’s Ruthless!—about a diabolical little girl determined to star in the school play—is billed as The Bad Seed meets Gypsy, and what more do you need to know than that? The award-winning cult musical returns off-Broadway this September in a new production benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, directed by Paley and starring Laird in drag as the wicked agent Sylvia St. Croix. BroadwayBox caught up with Laird to talk legendary queens, more specifically his favorite five drag performances he’s ever seen.
1. Charles Pierce
When, as a 20-year-old gay man fresh from Kansas, I first saw Charles Pierce at the Bon Soir in New York City in the fall of 1960, I was agog at his skillful weaving of a fictional bitch-fight between Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. His masterly writing and uncanny physical imitations so captured the essence of those two iconic actresses that I doubt they’d have represented themselves half so well had the encounter actually taken place. As he clawed and swept his way from stage right to stage left and back again, you could feel and “see” the bloodletting at work. In the ‘80s when I had the privilege to know and work with Charles, I was always amazed at the extraordinary change this sweet, humble, self-effacing man underwent the minute make-up hit his face and he plopped a wig on a head much too small for his body…but just right for the dragon ladies he lovingly recreated.
Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) was a startling experience every time I saw his work. My introduction was his on-stage performance as the matron in Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars at the Truck and Warehouse Theater in Greenwich Village. I then played catch up, watching Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble, Polyester, Hairspray, et al, a number of times, always lost in admiration at how completely he was able to submerge himself into the demented demands of those garish, yet touchingly honest, John Waters-born characters.
In the late ‘50s, while working my way through college playing cocktail piano and singing Noel Coward songs in Kansas City bars, I occasionally dropped in at the one after-hours bar that featured drag performers. Fairly cheesy, usually minimally talented, but always propelled by the desire to get up on stage in heels and a gown, the ‘divas’ all (badly) lip-synched Garland, Patsy Cline, and, if we were lucky, the odd track or two from a Dietrich album. It was a bit like watching your Uncle Hank after having one too many, get up at a family gathering and try to remember the lyrics to “Button and Bows.” THEN…40 years later, I was taken to see Lypsinka (John Epperson) perform his finely honed art of split-second timed vignettes, giving us tantalizing glimpses of Crawford, Paget, and Stanwyck, etc. in rapid fire succession; flawlessly calibrated to share devastatingly funny peeks behind the glamorous masks of so many ego-driven stars. The sheer volume of exposed raw personality, seamlessly choreographed and performed with the precision of a brilliant surgeon, watching Lypsinka is a bit like watching a Chuck Braverman time-capsule video of the entire genre of camp.
4. Dame Edna
What can one say of Dame Edna? (Barry Humphries) His show, Housewife Superstar was a revelation! Not since Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, and Sophie Tucker engaged members of the audience for building good-natured insult material, had a stand-up artist crafted a evening on the coattails of a paying audience. In Dame Edna’s case, the ‘insult-factor’ was benign to a fault and with hilarious pay offs. Asking names, home towns and personal information of those “lucky” singled-out patrons, the Dame exhibited an uncanny ability to recall these tidbits over the course of a two plus hour evening, always adding fresh comedic context to the biographical details. And, of course, the musicality! Who could ever again listen with straight face to any heart-rending performance of “Losing My Mind” once you’ve heard Edna’s hilarious rendering.
5. Joey Paley dancing Swan Lake
5) Which brings me, finally, to the other, more decorous side of drag, Joel Paley (A/K/A Bertha Vinayshinksy) who was dancing and being wickedly funny with Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo when we met in 1976. Shirley MacLaine bought us together. I was musical director for her CBS TV special, Where Do We Go From Here, when Joel, as one of the ‘Trocks,’ was about to make his network TV debut dancing with Shirley as one of the four “little swans” in the company’s classic spoof of Swan Lake. It was through watching Joel, along with Peter Anastos and Natch Taylor that I learned to appreciate subtext; how, in the unspoken language of ballet and nuance, more could be conveyed through an arched eyebrow or a curtly- snapped fan than in ten pages of witty dialogue. Those “ballerinas” had more on their minds than dashing off pirouettes or weaving Balanchine daisy chains. There was retribution to be exacted for old slights, a pilfered pair of toe shoes, or a snide remark about recently gained poundage. As far as a drag performance having the most lasting effect on my life, I’d say it was clearly Joel’s Bertha Vinayshinksy, seeing how it’s 38 years later and we’re still a couple!
See Marvin Laird and Joey Paley’s cult musical Ruthless! during its return engagement, starring Laird, at Stage 72 at the Triad September 5-22.