Gender Benders

Downtown queer theater doesn’t come more “out there” than Cracked Ice, a mélange of drag, music, circus acts, monologues, and campy costumes that plays as a kind of vaudeville fever dream about the current financial crisis and Bernard Madoff. Directed by Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller, the show features contributions from Kenny Mellman, one half of the Kiki & Herb show; Deb Margolin, a veteran of Split Britches; and the Wau Wau Sisters. Be warned: The humor in the show is an acquired taste. This is the sort of thing you’ll like if you like this sort of thing. The level of comedy can be discerned from the punned names of the two main characters, the Liberty sisters: Statua Liberty (Miller) and Sybil Liberty (Carlton Cyrus Ward). The central conceit is that Sybil, without the knowledge of Statua, has invested the sisters’ money in a Ponzi scheme run by Madoff and, of course, lost it all. Miller and Ward play their characters as if they were Laverne and Shirley on speed, and Miller has directed others to the same level of hysteria, notably Salley May as a roller skater named Flo.

Even if the dialogue isn’t Noel Coward, it would help to understand the alternately rushed and swallowed lines from several of the cast. Even the Liberty sisters’ jokes, credited to Jay Leno, often fizzle because of a lack of comic timing or audibility. Rae C. Wright (who resembles Simone de Beauvoir) has the advantage of more measured speech in less frantic roles, as she cross-dresses as a plumber, who morphs into a woman named Bernadette, who is actually Bernard Madoff in disguise. I think. The rest of the drag in the show is in the English style. That means that there’s no attempt to disguise the facial or chest hair on the men (and Miller, who has a full beard and chest hair, doesn’t disguise hers).

Costumers Jonathan Berger and Charlotte Lily Gaspard have gone all-out on headdresses, spangles and boas, and Berger, who also did the sets, cleverly hangs mobiles of diamond shapes, in powder blue and silver spangles, over the audience, a nice visual play on the “ice” of the title.

Periodically, the Wau Wau sisters (Tanya Gagne and Adrienne Truscott) appear behind a two-dimensional bathtub with (painted cardboard) plants growing in it, and clopping on in Lederhosen and wooden shoes. (It’s a toss-up if they’re Swiss or Dutch.) They are the sons of Bernadette, apparently, who is Bernard Madoff in disguise.

Jokes are thrown out willy-nilly, as when the plumber enters and asks, “Anybody need their pipes cleaned?” And sometimes there are delightful turns of phrase: "I just tell the truth in a completely false way," says Bernadette/Bernie.

But the Keystone Kops–style slapstick grows tiresome; it’s not hilarious just to show up and throw things around. Interspersed with these antics are dances and songs, with music and lyrics by Mellman (Herb of Kiki & Herb). The songs provide amiable interludes, but it’s the physical aspects of the show that succeed best. They include the dexterous Miller and Ward juggling Indian clubs, courtesy of their experience with Circus Amok, and one of the Wau Wau Sisters singing a brief, 60-second song as the other holds a handstand for the full minute.

Melman at the piano also provides unobtrusive underscoring to much of the action as well, although Novice Theory, one of the various rotating guest artists who appear in the show, did a smashing accordion piece on the night I attended—one that he wrote.

Most impressive is the choreography by Faye Driscoll, one of whose pieces excels in silence. Driscoll’s dances are demanding and executed with vigor and synchronization by the cast. Unlike the rest of the show, they seem to have been rehearsed sufficiently. Certainly, when one of the funniest moments is the accidental loss of two wigs, and Miller herself looks unsure which wig to retrieve for her character because they are nearly identical, it’s a good guess that some aspects of the show haven’t been polished quite enough.

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