Drag Queen Theater

at Club Lower Links


at New Variety Theatre

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but sometime in the early 1980s drag shows stopped being gay. Big drag clubs like Chicago’s Baton Show Lounge, the oldest such club in the city, began to attract more and more curious and ammused heterosexual couples. In the 70s gay liberation had loosened once-rigid gender roles for lesbians and gay men, and spawned new styles of nightlife like the gay disco. And the women’s movement contributed to the development of a separate lesbian community that rejected the drag shows’ glamor and campy portrayals of women. At the same time, the drag revues themselves were changing. Performers became more and more sophisticated, making use of new technology, both musical and hormonal. They were no longer merely “female impersonators” but “female illusionists.” Some, like the Baton’s fabulous Shante, even became women through transsexual surgery, and later left the revues. (These days Shante performs as Alexandra Billings at mainstream theaters and cabarets around town.)

Drag Queen Theater–the brainchild of Randy Esslinger, one half of the performance duo Gurlene and Gurlette Husseyfire Revue–is a response to all that. “We want our drag queens back on our own terms,” he told me after the show. “We make no illusions about being men. We’re not female impersonators. We’re men dressing up however we want, doing whatever we want. We’re drag queens, not women.”

Drag Queen Medea, the group’s current production at Club Lower Links, features Esslinger–with tattoos, beard, and a rather large bulge in his dress–in the title role of Euripides’ classic Greek drama. In Esslinger’s adaptation, Medea is the headliner at a 1970s drag revue that’s undergoing drastic changes. Jason, played in the most garish male fashions of the time by D. Travers Scott, is the club’s proprietor and Medea’s lover.

This Medea also features a startling chorus of drag queens in white tutus and white combat boots who dance and lip-synch to such gay disco favorites as “Night on Disco Mountain” and “Do the Hustle.” Esslinger does a mean “It Should Have Been Me” when Jason rejects Medea, and Jim Ochsenreiter, in a walk-on role, steals the show during “Easy to Be Hard.”

The adaptation, though it’s campy as hell, is relatively faithful. Large chunks of the original crop up at the most insane yet somehow appropriate moments, as when Jason and Medea have a big fight (two large signs light up saying “Direct Medea Reference”). As expected, Medea murders half the cast and gets her comeuppance in the end.

Funny, irreverent, and pretty ridiculous, Drag Queen Medea is unabashedly queer. The gay-male cultural references (at one point Jason refers to Henna, played by Paddy Oh, as “a wicked top”) come quick and dirty; the humor is biting. It could stand some polish, however. The night I attended, Esslinger and David Eckard, playing Sara Lee, were the only ones who seemed to have a handle on the lip-synching. They and Scott were the only ones to consistently hold character. As much fun as the show is, these are not minor criticisms–such flaws were serious distractions.

Up above the Bellagio Ristorante in River North Thom Goodman has opened a club called the New Variety Theatre. What it promises is ground-breaking new cabaret programming (such as Goodman’s old club, CrossCurrents, provided in the 1980s) that changes weekly. The night I saw the show it featured a singer in the style of Luther Vandross; a juggler; a drummer who played chairs and champagne buckets; a fairly racist Zanie’s-style stand-up comic; the wonderful house band, headed by keyboardist Vince Willis; and a surprising new performer, Sarah E. Underwood.

Almost all were delightful–the comic hit the only sour note of the evening. Technically headliner Jimmy Higgins is very good, but his choice of material is dubious. He slammed Puerto Ricans and Filipinos, and when the audience didn’t respond well he just laughed and said, “They’re jokes, folks, they’re only jokes.” Right.

Underwood is the sax player with the band, and she did a superbly understated monologue about men’s reactions to her musicianship. Working her themes slowly but brilliantly, she told us a most poignant and funny story about love, life, and loneliness. There wasn’t a punch line in sight, and that made it work all the better. Her second piece, performed in male drag, wasn’t nearly as effective, but Underwood is definitely worth watching.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Ochsenreiter.