Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vamping For A Living

If there is one type of stage creature that I adore, it is the vamp -- the woman who shamelessly mugs for the sake of her audience while parading her sexual wares across the stage in an ill-concealed attempt to entice and entrap her prey. The innocent victim usually turns out to be either a stupid hero, a macho clod, or a tenor. Sometimes he's a not-so-miraculous combination of all three.

While many in the audience mistake the stage vamp for a dumb beauty, I believe in giving credit where credit is due. These women with nerves of steel are capable of giving as little as they need to give before manipulating their victim's reaction with such skill and precision that they can realize the greatest return on their investment. A true theatrical vamp can be cold-hearted, cold-blooded and extremely calculating when necessary.

Not only have many stage vamps learned how to use their brains and beauty as a means of getting what they want, these women are incredibly resourceful when it comes to matters of survival. Backed into a death-defying situation, the vamp can and often will find the most mind-boggling escape route.

How do they do it? As any drag queen can tell you: beneath all those layers of cosmetic beauty lies the kind of true grit John Wayne never knew.


Two weeks after Hurricane Hugo laid waste to the Carolinas, I arrived in Charlotte to attend Opera/Carolina's production of Carmen. When one considers that there had been little available in the way of food, electricity or fresh water throughout the rehearsal period, there was much to be admired in the way Opera/Carolina's staff and artists came through. Although extensive cuts were made in the score (and the intermission between Acts III and IV sacrificed to save on union overtime), what this performance boasted was a great sense of life and the life force.

Perhaps that was because this production of Carmen had to be pulled together under unusually trying circumstances. Perhaps the performance became a rallying point for the community. All I know is that there was more genuine vitality in Opera/Carolina's Carmen than I've seen in many other productions of Bizet's classic.

As usual, in times of crisis, the opera's strength came from the women in the cast. Working with mezzo-soprano Adria Firestone -- an intensely magnetic performer -- director Rosalind Elias (who is, herself, a Carmen of long standing) was able to bring a rare sense of animal energy to the stage. Firestone's cigarette girl was no ditsy gypsy. Instead, she was a shrewd, fiercely intuitive street woman whose labia majora knew the score much better than most people who study opera. Her confrontations with John Absalom's borderline psychotic Don Jose were physically threatening -- sometimes even scary. Even Maryanne Telese's familiar Micaela showed fire and more metal than usual.

This Carmen had a sense of dramatic integrity that most directors never deliver. And, while this was not the finest performance of Bizet's opera I've ever encountered, the drawbacks were fairly obvious and understandable. The unit set designed by Keith Nagy and James Stone and rented from the Cleveland Opera looked and was cheap. When carried away by his character's passion, the tenor (who had flown in at the last minute to replace Howard Hensel) tended to stray off pitch. The Escamillo, Nick Karousatos, had trouble being heard and conductor Charles Rosekrans could not always keep the performers onstage together with the musicians in the pit.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to place this Carmen up against many more prestigious productions because of its honest theatricality and unerring ability to communicate the passion of Bizet's score to Opera/Carolina's audience in clear and concise musicodramatic terms.


Much of the plot of Charles Busch's The Lady In Question rests on the use of feminine or pseudo-feminine guile. A wacky, tacky take-off on a peculiar genre of romantic war films, Busch's farce pays loving tribute to a Hollywood genre in a style which is at once resolute and ridiculous; far-flung, yet fey. The sexual innuendos and double entendres which pop up in every scene conspire to make Mr. Busch the Tom Stoppard of drag comedy. The Act I curtain is both riotously gruesome and murderously funny.

This much I will tell you about Busch's delicious period piece: A self-indulgent, egotistical female concert pianist manages to rescue an aging woman from the clutches of Austrian Nazis while saving herself from the evil Aryan ambitions of a preposterously pig-tailed and psychotically pubescent teenager who is dressed in an ill-fitting dirndl. As you might have guessed, writing about The Lady In Question without giving away all the fun is a bit difficult. It's like trying to describe the joy of eating a superb meringue: the confection is light, airy, and there isn't much substance to it. But it's a sweet to be rolled around on one's tongue with the knowledge that its delightful memory will be treasured on many an occasion.

Therefore, to give away any plot twists would be sacrosanct. Let's just say that with various members of the cast performing in drag and doubling up on certain roles, this intimate theatrical tour-de-force is a gentle reminder of just how delicious a sense of style can become when it has been brutally mastered.

While Busch gives a screamingly accurate and diva-like performance as the egocentric Gertrude Garnet, Julie Halston's portrayal of her friend Kitty (the Countess de Borgia) scores points as a riotously funny piece of Hollywood camp.

However, under Kenneth Elliott's superb and clever direction, the true star of the evening turns out to be perky Andy Halliday, whose obnoxiously adolescent and piranha-like portrayal of young Lotte Von Elsner could merrily goose-step its way through endless summer stock productions of The Sound of Music -- if the master race were given half a chance.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 25, 1990.

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