Thoughts & Musings

Dressing for Success:
Charles Busch’s The Tribute Artist (2016)

© 2017 by Eileen Warburton

Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother:
I see by you I am a sweet-face youth.
– The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare

Back in medieval and then Renaissance times, in the cold, dreary January days after Christmas, some people found ways to be merry with twelfth night revels. Besides the food, the drink, and the music, there were other constants. Revelers were disguised, they wore masks. People pretended to be someone else, even another sex, identities were topsy-turvy. I mention this because it is, in our time, January and (worse) February and we could use a bit of the sort of upside–down merry-making that a comedy like The Tribute Artist offers. Back in pre-Restoration days, of course, the women characters were always played by dolled-up boys or young men who were, basically, female impersonators. Shakespeare and his playwriting peers found much amusement in playing around with this stage convention with a sly wink at the audience. In comedies, there was fun to be had in making a female character played by a boy (say, Rosalind) take on male disguise. Even more fun if one of the male characters (say, Orlando) fell in love with him—or her—or her as him, or vice versa. Here in The Tribute Artist, like full circle, Jimmy the lead character is a man who professionally plays celebrity women with sincerity and panache. To add to the exploration of gender-bending, there’s also a lesbian second banana/best friend and an innocent adolescent transitioning from female to male.

The slipperiness of human identity is always one of the grand themes of comedy, especially farce. In farce, people pretend to be who they are not—for gain, for lust, or just to cover up some humiliating social faux pas, past failure, or debt. Characters sneak around to forbidden assignments and are mistaken for someone else. Everyone guards embarrassing secrets, hides in closets, wears disguises, winds up in the wrong bed, and lies like there’s no tomorrow. Watching the characters when unmasked is as funny and stimulating as watching them when undressed.

It used to be said that if you wanted to make a bid on one of those fabulous pre-war New York luxury brownstones, you really needed to closely watch the obituary pages of the New York Times, then jump in quickly. In this loopy Charles Busch farce, a washed-up performer’s only chance of snagging Adriana’s elegant, expensive townhouse in the Village when she dies is to prevent her legal death by taking over her identity. In league with his brash real estate buddy, Rita, skilled female impersonator Jimmy takes over the house, life, clothes, wig, voice, chequebook, and entire identity of his friend and landlady when she passes quietly away. The two conspire to sell the house and live off the proceeds. Except, of course, there are major complications: Adriana had legal heirs. Plus, she had a past lover, who turns out to be a nasty piece of work indeed.

Playwright Charles Busch (born 1954) is himself a celebrated female impersonator who has often spoken of how his feminine personas are tributes to the beautiful, strong, unique women that he recreates. “Drag,” he has said, “is being more, more than you can be. When I first started drag I wasn’t this shy young man but a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression . . . Somehow, by getting away from myself, I almost could be more myself. By having the trappings of drag or a female character, I suddenly had much more authority than before . . . A lot of drag can be very offensive, but I like to think that in some crazy way the women I play are feminist heroines.”

So it is that Jimmy, taking over the identity and trappings of Adriana’s life, is in fact not stealing what is hers, but paying tribute to the older woman’s grace and glamour at the time of her death.

Adriana and Jimmy are friends, part of whose attraction is that they are each the last vestige of a cultural way of life. Adriana’s life has been spent in that older, worldly, sophisticated New York City that is passing away. Jimmy, once a hugely successful tribute act in Las Vegas, now struggles to please an audience that doesn’t recognize Julie Andrews or Charo and barely acknowledges Marilyn Monroe. Age is catching up with both of them and it’s actually fitting that Jimmy’s skill can give a little last life to Adriana.

The Charles Busch who inhabits these spectacular women with joy and confidence began as a slight, “pathologically shy,” gay boy watching old movies on TV all night in his aunt’s Manhattan apartment. He grew up to be the acclaimed master of a dazzlingly learned, wickedly well-informed campy comedic theatre. Born in 1954, he was raised from the age of 7 by his mother’s older sister, his Aunt Lil, by his description a real Auntie Mame personality who “did everything she could to allow me to pursue everything that I wanted to be . . . I was so lucky to have been saved by her.” (Busch, incidentally, has paid tribute to Aunt Lil by lovingly acted the role of Auntie Mame three times.) He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and earned a B.A. in Drama at Northwestern in 1976. He toured for years in a one-man drag show before almost frivolously putting together the campy skit, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984) that, to his astonishment, became a huge hit that led to his entire stage career. He’s gone on to do plays like Red Scare on Sunset (1991), The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (1999), and The Divine Sister (2011), in which he starred in the premier productions, playing the leading lady. A passionate movie fan since childhood, Busch’s plays—like this one—are always loaded with film references and witty cultural observations. As much as Jimmy, his character, Busch loves to bring to life Bette, Marilyn, Katherine, Audrey, Margaret, Judy, and all the other icons of black and white classic femininity, sparkle, and strength.

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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