It's almost always funnier when men dress up as women than the other way around. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli are drag standbys in theaters and cabarets around the world. Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton are routinely skewered on Saturday Night Live and in improv clubs. But where are the women who can make a gender statement or give us a new perspective by dressing up as Jerry Falwell or Bob Dole? Where are the estrogen-inspired Ted Kennedys or Al Gores?
At the root of this mystery, I suspect, is that women costumed as men -- even men with power -- don't offend our societal sensibilities. Women dressed as men are merely cute, while men dressed as women can be scary. The urge to make us laugh at what also offends us lies deep in drag's heart, as Charles Ludlam, godfather of modern cross-dressing in the theater, could certainly tell us.
Ludlam, founder and genius of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44. If only he were still alive. Only he could transcend his own masterpieces, pastiches of B movies, homosexual politics, obscure theatrical in-jokes, and general outrageousness that forever redefined drag theater in the mid-Eighties. The Mystery of Irma Vep, his most often performed play, sends up Abbott and Costello movies, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and other bodice-rippers, not to mention genteel sensibilities everywhere.
Ludlum seems to be one inspiration for The Sisters Grimm, a Twisted Fairy Productions show, but his spirit is markedly missing. In this production creators James Doyle and Madison Tyler, costumed in bad housedresses, retell the story of Cinderella from the point of view of stepsisters Fabella and Lucinda. Which is to say, they've taken the basic premise from the familiar fairy tale about the good stepsister versus her two less deserving siblings, and inserted into it would-be outrageous digressions. For example in this version, Cinderella is a stripper (dubbed Sin-derella) discovered in Las Vegas by the closeted husband of Fabella and Lucinda's mother. Clever? Not really.
The Sisters Grimm, which has settled into the tiny garret at the EDGE/Theatre, is neither amusing nor very inventive. It's the kind of show that probably seemed funny as it was being developed, but should never have gotten past the workshop stage or through a few rehearsals without being sent back for a complete rewrite. In fact The Sisters Grimm was originally scheduled to play as a late-night offering at Area Stage, but Area's artistic director John Rodaz told me he didn't think the show was ready for an audience. He was right. While the acting is passable, the writing ranges from juvenile to monstrously derivative. A reference to The Rocky Horror Picture Show only serves to invite unflattering comparisons.
The sisters (Tyler is Lucinda; Doyle is Fabella), two oversize bruisers, take turns telling the story, constantly interrupting each other with non sequiturs and free associations. A reference to "our house" by one sister sets off a few choruses of the Eighties pop hit "Our House" by the other. This immediately prompts a spontaneous foray into the audience for a quick dance with a ticketholder. These kinds of meaningless antics might have worked if more effort had been put into defining the two sisters. As it stands now, other than wardrobe (Lucinda sports a red wig and cat-eye glasses; Fabella doesn't) there's nothing to distinguish them. In fact the pair aren't characters as much as they are a two-headed ringleader, prodding the audience along from one lame joke to the next.
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Directed by Gina Montet, the show is shapeless, unpunctuated, and badly lighted. The actors move around the stage without having a reason for being where they are at any particular point in time, nor do they convey any information in the way they move, which would seem to be a primary motivation for having men dressed as women. Why are these sisters in drag? Who knows. Women could be cast in The Sisters Grimm and the effect would be the same. The show's sensibility is not one of sophisticated knowingness but rather of uneven puerile silliness, full of lame sexual innuendo that wouldn't shock a fifth-grader, much less the denizens of South Beach lolling about a few feet away from the theater door.
Is there hope for The Sisters Grimm? I thought there were two tiny redeemable moments, the first of which occurs when the sisters describe the coach that takes Sin-derella to the Prince's ball. (Every mention of the word "ball" is followed by a hissing sound to indicate the plural, as though "balls" were naughty enough to earn a laugh.) In this sequence the only one in the show with an organic verbal rhythm, Fabella (or was it Lucinda?) reports that the carriage is "kinda squashesque." "Squashlike?" asks her sister. "No, squashish," replies the first. Two minutes of interesting writing out of a 90-minute show might not be much, but it's something to build on, as is the Dr. Seuss parody that follows. Not that I'm holding my breath.
The whole point of sending up pop culture, not to mention dressing up in another gender's clothing, is to be subversive, to show us a side of the world we haven't seen before, or to look at the seemingly ordinary with a new lens. So many parodies of fairy tales, TV sitcoms, and baby-boom phenomena have passed through theater portals and the cathode-ray tube that to really catch our attention, a satire has to be truly original. It's not enough to reach into the stewpot of pop culture, bring up chunky morsels, and throw them back at us. Good drag performance is supposed to make us emotionally uncomfortable, not get us to squirm in our seats, peering in the dark at our watches. Telling us, as do the Sisters Grimm, that "Piglet and Pooh moved to Fire Island together" is neither provocative nor entertaining. An entire evening of this sort of warmed-over cultural soup is merely grim.
The Sisters Grimm.
Written and performed by James Doyle and Madison Tyler. Directed by Gina Montet. Ongoing. EDGE/Theatre, 405 Espanola Way, Miami Beach; 305-531-6083.