Thursday, March 31, 2016

CHARLES BUSCH: Drag Royalty Plays History's Favorite Queen in "Cleopatra"

CHARLES BUSCH: Drag Royalty Plays History's Favorite Queen in "Cleopatra"

It's amazing that in 2016, modern culture is still fascinated with a certain Egyptian queen named Cleopatra-- Cleopatra VII, specifically.  Admired for her legendary beauty as well as her equally legendary intellect and charm, the woman who considered herself a direct descendant of the goddess Isis has been an enduring character in the theater and cinema for decades, despite having died in 30 B.C.  She has been portrayed by such Hollywood royalty as Theda Bara (in what's now considered a truly "lost" film), Claudette Colbert, Vivienne Leigh, and of course Elizabeth Taylor.  If the Queen of the Nile is yet again ready for reinvention, who better to do it than award-winning, gender-bending actor and playwright Charles Busch?  

From the celebrated persona to the eye-popping costumes and headdresses, Cleopatra is a juicy role indeed-- and it's a role that Busch tells me he's been preparing to play since he was 8 years old (!).  It started when he first saw a photo of Ms. Taylor in Cleopatra-style eye makeup in a movie magazine, which led to a lifetime of fascination with (and inspiration from) a more glamorous era. Busch tells me, "I've been researching my roles since I was six years old.  It's not like I had three weeks to learn a female character and asked, 'How do I do that?  Maybe I'll watch an old movie!'  I've been absorbing the postures, the vocal inflections, the images, and the way these actresses turn their head toward the light.  I  try to visit their thought processes, and analyze why they are making that acting choice-- not just imitating that choice.  Sometimes it's helpful to know what was going on in their lives that made them respond to a scene in that way.  There are a lot things that go into it: a lifetime of study, and a lifetime of empathy for a certain kind of actress."  He adds, "I never wanted to be a woman, but there many were times when I wanted to be an actress. As an androgynous man, I identified more with the female characters in the movies.  It's a lifetime fascination with actresses, many of whom I never actually saw.  I'm as much interested in theater history as I am in film history.  As a kid, I was pouring over these big coffee-table style photo books of stars of the American stage and being as fascinated by a photograph of, let's say, actress Katharine Cornell-- who did not appear in films-- as much as I'd be fascinated by a photograph of Greta Garbo.  In a way, the great ladies of theater, who I could not see, stimulated my imagination even more-- because I could create what their performances were in my head.  They are as much an inspiration to me as movie actresses."

Does Charles Busch play Cleopatra like Vivienne Leigh?  Like Claudette Colbert?  Like Elizabeth Taylor?  The answers are: Yes, yes, and yes... but Busch's Cleopatra also incorporates a good helping of Mae West, which is especially evident in some scenes.  When a no-nonsense, unapologetic Cleo confronts an overly mannered and priggish Calpurnia, it's clear that Busch is paying homage to West's baudy charms.  Busch tells me, "We're doing Cleopatra's whole story in 90 minutes!  I evoke a lot of different actresses in this performance.  I was concerned that it woulds just come off as an impressionist act and not a character.  Somehow I seem to be able to take these fragments of other actresses' personas, and by the time it's over, the audience seems to be able to accept me as a complete character and not just an impressionist act.  I worry that maybe it will come off as an impersonation, but I guess somehow I've infused it all with my own personality and my own concentration.   Cleopatra is a powerful character, a woman of many colors. I use the 1934 Claudette Colbert movie as a template for the play, because I wanted it to be a 90-minute play.  DeMille sort of did my work for me.  That film is about 90 minutes, so it was easier to use that as the structure, as opposed to the four hour Taylor version!  But the Claudette Colbert version is very much done in an Art Deco style, and Colbert's performance has a delicious element of her screwball performances; the same year, she did "It Happened One Night".   I took it a bit further: The first half of the story,  where Cleopatra is young, I evoke a 1930's heroine: not just Claudette Colbert, but a little early Barbara Stanwyck, and Jean Harlow, and Mae West, with flourishes of Vivienne Leigh-- her form of kittenish royalty.  As she gets older, I threw in more mature women like Susan Hayward, who never played Cleopatra (although she could have!), and Elizabeth Taylor. Throughout the whole thing, I am also throwing in some of those stage actresses-- with their intensity, their stylized performances, and their rich vocal tone.  That is the glue that holds it together."  

Enjoying a limited run at The Theater for the New City in New York's East Village, Busch's "Cleopatra", directed by the artist's longtime collaborator Carl Andress, made news in the theater world when the show sold its entire two week run prior to its first performance on Friday, March 25.  It created the kind of buzz that made the show the hottest ticket from here to Cairo.  "Cleopatra" marks the third consecutive sold-out run for Busch at Theater for the New City. He previously sold out runs for 2010's "The Divine Sister" and 2012's "Judith of Bethulia".  Astonishingly, the show sold out largely through word of mouth and the dedication of the star's loyal fans.  Busch tells me, "It's lovely.  This has happened each time we've done a show at The Theater for the New City.  Social media is a marvelous way to get the word out!  We don't advertise or send out a mailing.  It's very rewarding that there are people who really want to see me and who get their tickets in advance."  

In the last few years, Busch has been enjoying a new career in cabaret, with one of his best roles simply being himself-- but, of course, still in drag!  What motivated Busch to bring "Cleopatra" to the stage?  "I missed the backstage camaraderie of being in a play.  As an actor/playwright, I missed creating a world that other actors are a part of, and telling a more complete story.  I was like, 'Oh, let's try it again!'  It's been a joyful experience.  I really have been very fortunate with the critical response to my work.  I can't complain.  I've been treated with great respect, really from the beginning.  They have been supportive, and sometimes they have been critical... but when they were, I thought I deserved it."  For "Cleopatra", in keeping with the tradition of Busch's previous works at The Theater for the New City, the producers chose not to invite the press.  Busch offers, "You do a play, and then you get the reviews.  If they are great reviews, then you feel like, 'Well, we've achieved our goals.  Why do we have to keep on doing it?'  If it's a bad review, you think, 'Well, why do we have to keep doing it?  We failed!' (Laughs)  Maybe that's not the best response, but I find that it happens.  I feel that it's good therapy to just do the play for the point of just doing it: investing yourself, and entertaining the audience too.  I'm just lucky that for over 40 years I've developed a core audience who is very loyal, very enthusiastic, and very affectionate.  I'm extraordinarily grateful!" 

Audiences seeing "Cleopatra" were indeed grateful as well, from the moment when we first see the titular heroine of Busch's play.  She is carried into a camp at Tarsus by a hunky servant (Lawrence Bullock), wrapped up in carpet.  When she is "unrolled" onto center stage, our queen-- in henna-reddened hair and a mint green silk dress-- first does what any self-respecting lady would do: She grabs a mirror to check her famous looks! The audience went wild.  But that was just the beginning.  The play was always smartly campy, often over-the-top, occasionally VERY raunchy, and always hilarious-- with an infinite all-you-can-eat buffet of priceless lines and situations running throughout.  As Busch pointed out, "Cleopatra" is generally a very "male" story.  Except for Cleo herself, there weren't do many meaty female characters in previous incarnations.  In Busch's version, the queen's two handmaidens (Jennifer Cody and Ashley Austin Morris) enjoy some zesty roles and their own lesbian love story subplot.  Jennifer Van Dyck, who has appeared in several of Busch's previous shows, plays the villain Octavian as well as his glamorous twin sister Octavia.  Tony nominee (for "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") Tony Sheldon plays Julius Caesar, who gets killed off in the play fairly early. Still, the audience gets to appreciate Sheldon's masterful acting talents even after Caesar's death-- not just as Caesar's ghost, but also with his roles as Caesar's wife Calpurnia and the Roman Senator Lepidus.  As Lepidus, even Sheldon's wordless acting is astonishing.  Andy Halliday, Busch's frequent collaborator and friend since age 14, steals every scene he is in as "The Soothsayer".  Joe Zaso completes the cast as a hunky Marc Antony, guaranteeing to arouse both Cleopatra's and the audience's "less-than-noble" intentions!

Charles Busch is a trailblazer in breaking the rules of gender in performance, but what does the actor and writer think about the  popularity of "RuPaul's Drag Race" and the younger queens on that show? He tells me,
"It's great.  I watch it.  It's a whole different kind of thing.  We're related but not related.  I see myself in them-- but at the same time, they have a very different approach.  They identify as drag queens, and that takes over parts of their life in a way.  It's very different from how I see myself.  We're all fascinated by female imagery, so we're "birds of a feather", but at the same time, we're different species! It's wonderful that the masses can watch "RuPaul's Drag Race" and route for one of the contestants.  I watch a lot of competition shows on TV.  When there's one gay person on, a lot of straight people may just "tolerate" that one person and then be glad they are "voted off" the island or whatever!  But on certain shows, like "Project Runway", from the very beginning, almost every man on that show is gay-- so a straight person has to decide which effeminate man they are gonna route for.  There's such a variety of gay men working on "RuPaul's Drag Race", and I think it's terrific.  I love RuPaul and what he's up to.  It does seem like so many of the younger drag performers today are not influenced by those larger-than-life female actresses from decades ago.  If anything, it seems that they are more influenced by Madonna and Beyonce and contemporary pop singers.  That seems to be where their inspiration comes from; rarely from film and television.  Women in film over the past 40 years are not encouraged to be theatrical or flamboyant-- so how can today's drag queens be inspired by, for example, Julia Roberts?  (Laughs)  But pop stars and rock stars can be very theatrical.  I can see how a young person can be inspired by Lady Gaga, for example.  The women in film who have been bigger than life-- like Faye Dunaway and Kathleen Turner-- have been kind of ridiculed for it.  Film is a very realistic world today.  Just the technology itself-- high def, widescreen, and better color-- make film is very realistic now, so it requires a very ordinary person, not a bigger-than-life personality!  People always ask me, 'How do female stars today compare with the great ladies of the 40's and 50's?'  They CAN'T compare!  It was a whole different kind of film.  There was the great pantheon of women in the past.  They were seen in silvery black and white and protected by movie studios, when the only pictures of them were these extraordinarily retouched, stylized photographs.  The publicity that went out about them was so carefully developed.  The stories that they appeared in were bigger than life, and romantic, and stylized.  So, who's to say that if Angelina Jolie were born in 1905, maybe she would have been up there like Joan Crawford?  But they are competing in a very different world.  They are in a world of utter realism!  It's hard to become iconic in a world full of realism, but I can see how female pop stars today can achieve a certain iconic status: They can be bigger than life, and do dynamic performances, and wear crazy costumes, and have stylish photographs taken of them.  So, I think that drag has turned more towards music stars than film stars."

Tired of realism?  Charles Busch's "Cleopatra" is a trip down the Nile worth taking!

Charles Busch's "Cleopatra" runs through April 17th at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave, NYC.  Some tickets may be made available 72 hours before each sold out performance. Visit for more info. (Photo of Busch as Cleopatra by David Rodgers.  Photo of Busch in suit by Michael Wakefield.)

CANDY SAMPLES: "Why I walk for HIV/AIDS..."

"Why I walk for HIV/AIDS..."

New York City has always been home to an infinite number of creative and talented people: artists, singers, writers, theater folk, and assorted multi-hyphenates of many varieties.  In a city as large and diverse as New York, it takes a lot to stand out as a performer, much less to develop a legion of dedicated fans.  Drag star Candy Samples (not to be confused with the adult film star of the same name!) is originally from Atlanta, Georgia-- and still has both the accent and that famous "slow, Southern style" to prove it.  In 2016, Ms. Samples has found herself to be of the hardest-working gals in her adopted city of New York.  The flame-haired chanteuse writes all her own songs, which include such titillating titles as "Boy Crazy", "If I Had Only Left (Two Shots Early)", and "Sweet Scandal".  Two of her audience favorites, "Bear Season" and "Queen of the Bears", pay tribute to the ever-growing Bear community: unapologetic big and hairy gay men.   As a singer and pianist, Candy Samples' live performances always become the hottest ticket in town, and usually sell out.  Lately, however, Ms. Samples has been just as busy with her philanthropic activities as with her music.  For the last five years, Candy has organized her team The CandyWrappers to participate in New York City's Annual AIDS Walk every May.  From its humble beginnings in 2011 with six walkers, the CandyWrappers have grown to over 50 walkers and have already raised $12,970 of its 2016 goal of $30,000.

Underneath the red wig and the makeup, Candy Samples is Will Harrell, a boyish and rather shy native of Astoria, Queens.  For Harrell, HIV/AIDS awareness is personal.  He openly shares the story about his father contracting HIV after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion in the 1980's, and ultimately succumbing to the disease in 1991.  It would take Harrell a long period of soul-searching and life experience before he himself found his true calling as both a performer and an HIV/AIDS activist in New York City, largely thanks to his alter ego, the self-described "good Presbyterian woman" Candy Samples.

With AIDS Walk New York just around the corner, Candy Samples took the time to speak to me about why she walks every year-- and why you should too!
JR: Hello, Candy.  Thank you for speaking with me tonight!
CS: Anytime!
JR: So, it's that time of the year again.  AIDS Walk New York is coming soon!
CS: Yes.  Sunday, May 15th!  This is the fifth year of The CandyWrappers.  We started with a small group.  I believe there were five or six of us... It was a small team.  We raised about $2000 the first year.  The next year, we raised just under $26,000!
JR: Wow!
CS: We had surpassed our goal!  This year we have a goal of $30,000, and we are already a third of the way there.  So, in just under two months away from the walk, we WILL do it!  This is the time when people begin to do their fundraising... and do their most too!  We're on a roll!
JR: Congratulations!  So, Candy, you mentioned that AIDS Walk New York is one of three HIV/AIDS-related fundraisers that you participate in.  Can you tell me about the other two? 
CS: It started with an event that I do in New Orleans in the summer with a group called Decadent Ducks.  Decadent Ducks is a group of about 300 Bears or Bear-friendly folk.  It's not an exclusive group.  Everyone is welcome.  We did some events with raffles, a silent auction, and that kind of thing to benefit a local AIDS group there, The NO/AIDS Task Force.  It was to raise money for Food for Friends, a meals on wheels-type service.  When I started doing my "Sunday Services" seven years ago, we took up an offering for Food for Friends.  I always help with the fundraising.  The third event is the Braking AIDS ride, which benefits Housing Works.  This will be my third year with them.
JR: Tell me more about that event.
CS: It's a bike ride from Boston to New York.  I am setting up the refreshment stands-- the oases!  As a good Presbyterian girl, I'm always good with the lemonade and sugar cookies!  I set up, and I am also a cheerleader for them.  They always appreciate that I am there, "in face", and that I'm there to cheer them on and that I lift their spirits.  These people have been on a bike for miles and miles!  I did not realize why it was important to get up and get into drag at 3AM!  But I found that it really benefits the experience for the riders.   Now that it's my third year, I really "get it" now!  I asked myself, "Do they really care that I am here?"  And, they do!  They get out their phones, and they stop and take a selfie with me, and then post it... and I say to myself, "If I was on a ride 285 miles from Massachusetts to New York, then I'd want to focus on some hydration, use the port-a-potties, and then move on to the next stop!"  But they also want to visit with Candy for a minute.  It's as close to a cheerleader as I'll ever get!
JR: You mean, you weren't a cheerleader in high school?
CS: No! (Laughs)  I was in the drama club!
JR: Weren't we all? (Laughs)
CS: I don't wear a cheerleader outfit.  I wear various Candy Samples ensembles!  I have different themes on my stops: I had a New Orleans theme, and a 60's theme, and a luau theme... Those were my three big ones!
JR: I've always believed that everyone has to have a cause that they really believe in and that they really take a stand for.  Yours is HIV/AIDS awareness.  I know that it's very personal for you...
CS: I think that for EVERYBODY, it is personal when it comes to HIV/AIDS.  What makes it personal for me is this: When I was 12, my father, who was a hemophiliac, was diagnosed with HIV.  He had taken blood products regularly to control his hemophilia and to keep him alive.  The same treatments that kept him alive also infected him with the virus in the '80's.  He was diagnosed in 1988, and he died in 1991.   I was 12 when he was diagnosed, and at this time, I was dealing with coming into my gay identity.  I was dealing with both that and with our family situation: growing up in a world where we are watching the news coverage about what it is was like to be a person with AIDS, and what it was like to be a gay man at that time.  That was tough.  I think that I held in a lot of anger, resentment, and fear about what could be my destiny.  I went on to go away to school and to study theater, and to try to make a life for myself here in New York City.  It wasn't until some friends had become diagnosed, into my New York City experience, that it really hit hard.  I needed to do something.  I had always lived in fear of becoming HIV positive, or having someone else in my life become HIV positive.  It was always that same anxiety and that same sadness.  Once I learned to get over that fear and to try and put it into better use, then that's when I started putting together the AIDS Walk team. I had done other fundraising things for the cause, but they were always very much on the periphery.  I was "born" as Candy Samples in 1995 when I did an AIDS benefit pageant in Atlanta.  That's what you did at the time.  You did an AIDS fundraiser.  But I had not really become outspoken about it until I started doing the AIDS Walk.  I started talking to people about it, and post on social media daily about testing: "Know your status""Know about PeP (post-exposure prophylaxis)."  We didn't have PreP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) at the time.  There was a period of time in my life where we didn't talk about HIV/AIDS because we had "the cocktail".  People who had the diagnosis didn't have "the look".  It wasn't a "death sentence" anymore, but we still didn't talk about it.  It was something you didn't want to get, and something you didn't want to know anyone with.  From my time moving here in 2000, it was a taboo thing.  And, it shouldn't have been.  I think that the years finally caught up with me, and I couldn't do that anymore.  I knew that my chances of ever becoming sexually active and finding love in New York meant that I would have to confront HIV.  It didn't need to be a "block" in my life, but it needed to be something that I could be prepared to know how to deal with.  I think that by doing AIDS Walk, by learning about what services that GMHC provided, by talking to my doctor in better detail about my health concerns, by "stepping into my power" as they say, helped.  Doing these fundraisers, and spreading the word about testing, prevention, love , and acceptance has sustained me.  That's why I do so much.  I do a lot of fundraising. But there are a LOT of other people who do a lot of great things too!
JR: Definitely!  But the way you do for HIV/AIDS awareness will always be your own, just like Witti Repartee (Empress XXVI of New York) has her own way, and Peter Schwartz and Rick Weber (Co-Captains of Team Eagle for Braking the Cycle) have their own way, for examples.  Other activists have there own way of fighting the fight, but only Candy Samples can do what you do.
CS: Everyone can do their part-- to advocate for HIV/AIDS.  I had someone contact me and tell me, "I signed up for the Walk, but my boyfriend hasn't.  He's busy with school.  Can he still walk?"  I said, "Yes!  He can walk.  If he can sign up that would be great, because it takes only a couple of seconds and it is free."  But think about this: You are going to update your Facebook status and take a selfie every day anyway, and it only takes seconds to sign up for AIDS Walk and say, "I'm doing AIDS Walk and here's a link to my page.  I am walking to support my community!"  I think that it took more time for me to tell my friend that his boyfriend should do it than it would take to sign up and raise $100!  We are fine as a society to go out to the bar or the club, but we are afraid to ask our friends for $25.  I think that's silly.  It's hard to ask people for money. I get it.  But I see people's political posts, or I see pictures of people's puppy, or I see another gym selfie, and-- well, that's how people express themselves.  I am expressing myself through AIDS Walk!  And I will talk about it until the cows comes home!  Or, until we don't have something to talk about!  (Laughs)  And then I will take up knitting, and all my posts will be about knitting!  But we have to have a cure for AIDS.  AIDS has to NOT be a thing!
JR: (Laughs) Now, you said that Candy Samples was born in 1995.  How has she changed as we enter 2016?
CS: Candy was born at an AIDS benefit, and she's gone back to doing them.  So, maybe she's come full circle! I think Candy has become more ingrained in her community.  I think that at the moment, I'm known more for my fundraising than I am for my music!  People ask, "What do you do?" I say, "I'm a drag queen singer/songwriter.  And I do a lot of fundraising."  Last year I said I was going some time off to work on my album.  I'm still working on it.  I've had some setbacks.  But I am back and better than ever... and that album WILL come out!  My supporters know the material that's going to be on it, because I've been performing it for the last few years.  But, I think that as of late people know me more for AIDS Walk and for Braking AIDS.  And that's fine!  Isn't that great to be known for something good?  In the past I've been known for being a hot mess karaoke hostess at 4AM...
JR: That must have been a very long time ago!
CS: It was many moons ago.  I had my moments!  I used to like to party a lot.  My priorities have changed a little.  I still like to have fun.  So, don't worry... You'll see "Sandy Camples" every now and then!
JR: Well, having fun for a cause is a great thing!
CS: "Having fun for a cause" implies that there's a lot of thought into it! 
JR: Hmmm...
CS: I don't want people to have the feelings that I had from ages 12 through 27!  I kind of look at those years as all very fearful.  I got my first "grown up" HIV test at age 27.  I waited a long time.  I was having sex... but I was afraid to go and get tested.  I was afraid of what the results would be.  I moved to New York at age 24 knowing that this would be the best city for me to live in if I had become HIV positive.  Insurance laws at the time wouldn't deny anyone due to a pre-existing condition, and the health care in New York is better.  I wanted to be in the city that would give me the best.  But I was scared... and I was afraid to test.  At that time, you didn't talk to your friends about it.  I know that I didn't talk with MY circle about it.  I think that a lot of people had that issue.  I was tested as a teenager when my father was diagnosed, but age 27 was my first adult HIV test. 
JR: Well, you have to get tested when you're ready... and only you can know just when you're ready!
CS: True.   I had to wait until I was ready.  And I tell people this: Test when you are ready to receive a positive result.  I know too many people who have gone in and thought, "This will be nothing!" and then have been devastated.  I went in expecting to be positive.  I'm not saying that that's the best way to go into it, but expect that there are two results.  You will get one of them.  So, think about what you are going to do.  I did not know what I'd do if I would have been positive.  At that time, I did not have enough self-confidence, self-love, or self-respect.  I would have made a horrible boyfriend to anyone, and I wasn't the best person to myself.  Then, finally, it came to the time when I was able to accept the results as whatever they would be.   By that time I had a lot of support from the people in my life.  They were like, "Do it!" and "We're gonna make this happen!"  I had a lot of people holding my hand.  I also have to add that today, we know more.  We know that it is best to start treatment as soon as you have that diagnosis.  When I first moved to New York, that was up in the air.  People were taking "breaks" from their meds.  That was a thing... or, not taking the meds right away: You followed the T cell count.  Now, common practice is to take those medications on the onset. 
JR: Sadly, due to the AIDS epidemic, the gay community lost a whole generation of amazing people, and along with it, we lost a lot of our history.  We'll never know just how much of that history was lost... forever.
CS: When I came out, I was doing theater in Atlanta.  I moved here with a Broadway dream.  So many people who I was in theater with were telling me that I reminded them of a friend.  I never met him or any of these other people because they had all died.  That propelled me to get out of Atlanta and the circle that I was in.  I was living in a town full of ghosts.   I really wanted to live a life for myself.  I finished out college in Boston, studied theater, and then left to live the life I really wanted to live.  I eventually moved to New York.  I pumped myself up with as much confidence as I could muster at the time, and then found myself asking, "What the f*** did I just do?"  But I was too proud to go back home.  It took a while to find myself and where I fit in.  And, in New York City, no one is just going to hand you a place to fit into!  You just have to try and make room and to nudge yourself in! 
JR: How true.  You also have to make yourself "stand out" in this town, or you'll just sort of "dissolve"!  So, back to AIDS Walk!  This year will be the 31st year of the Walk.  Now, I know what it is like to do it.  You are surrounded by people of all ages, religions, ethnicities, lifestyles... People bring their children and even their pets.  It is a very life-affirming experience. What would you say to encourage someone to do the Walk for the first time if they have never done it before?
CS: Just do it!  It's not what you would expect.  It is amazing to see all of those people together.  It is amazing to be with our team The CandyWrappers.  It is a very special time where I am able to talk with each and every member of the team.  We have a little moment, we get to talk,  I get to hold their hand, and we walk.  We get to talk about what we are doing and why we are here.  Last year, there was a man who wanted to walk with us.  As soon as we started to get to the lineup, he told me that his brother died in 1992.  I told him about how my dad died in 1991.  And I just held his hand and we walked to the lineup area together.  We talked for a little bit.  This was a straight man in his mid-40's who wanted to talk about his brother.  And I was happy to listen.  Those are the moments we have.  I've talked with teammates about PreP, in detail.  I've had some nice conversations.  It's a very intimate day for me.  I feel all the "feels";  it's very cerebral.  We get to do something: We literally put one foot in front of the other, and we walk it out.  We make a statement, and we show the city that HIV/AIDS is still an issue that needs to be addressed.  There's still a discussion.  Does everyone needs to do the AIDS Walk?  No.  But you know what?  If you're in New York City, I think that you should be a part of it somehow.  Support a walker, or fundraise online, or be a "virtual walker"... Raise awareness.  Get the discussion going!  HIV is not over!
JR: Thank you, Candy!

You can catch Candy Samples and her Special Guests at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St, NYC, with "I Walk", a night of original music, on Saturday, April 16th.  It is a benefit for The CandyWrappers AIDS Walk New York Team.  Tickets are $20 in advance from Purple Pass ( and there is a 2-drink minimum.  For more info, visit
You can see more Candy Samples at 
 AIDS Walk New York is Sunday, May 15th, 2016.  The event benefits Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) primarily as well as more than 40 tri-state AIDS service organizations through the Community Partnership Program (CPP).  Visit for more info.

See also: "SAMPLE HER CANDY! An Interview With Candy Samples"  here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SOME GUYS HAVE ALL THE LUCK! David Meulemans Celebrates "LUCKY TO BE ME" at NYC's Metropolitan Room!

David Meulemans Celebrates "Lucky To Be Me" at NYC's Metropolitan Room!  

Born and raised in the Midwest (in Appleton, Wisconsin, specifically), David Meulemans learned early in life that he had talent. From when he was a child, people realized that he could sing.  It wasn't too long afterward that David identified himself as a performer-- and after that, he knew that there was only one pathway in life which he could follow.  Meulemans tells me, "If you are a singer, then you have to sing-- just like if you're a bird, you have to fly!  There's no choice.  It's about being who you are."  Now living in Florida, Meulemans performs all over the country.  He has just completed a new CD named "Lucky to Be Me", which "celebrates the love of The American Songbook".  "Lucky to Be Me" is also the name of Meulemans' upcoming show at New York City's iconic cabaret hotspot, The Metropolitan Room.  The title of the CD and the show couldn't be more spot-on: Meulemans tells me about his career in 2016, "It's a wonderful place for me to be in life right now, where I can say, 'Well, this is what I want to do, and this is what I am GOING to do!'... and, the fact that people like it is absolutely incredible to me.  It's such a pleasure, and such a joy, that I can take these songs and tie them together in my cabaret show and take people on a journey... and hopefully, have them leave feeling uplifted and hearing my message that THEY can do it too!"  He calls his life now "an amazing dream that just keeps getting better and better", adding, "I couldn't name a show about my life anything else except 'Lucky to Be Me'"!  

Meulemans is currently in New York City, preparing for "Lucky to Be Me" at the Metropolitan Room on Saturday, March 19th.  He took the time to speak with me about life as an artist, his new show, and his relationship with the late "Grand Dame of Cabaret" Julie Wilson:

JR: Hi David.  Congratulations on the upcoming show at The Metropolitan Room.
DM: I have been coming to New York City for a few years.  I've performed at Don't Tell Mama and some of the other clubs, but I've always loved The Metropolitan Room.  I actually had this show DESIGNED for the Metropolitan Room.  It has just worked out really well!

JR: I can understand that!  The Metropolitan Room is one of my favorite places in New York too!  So, you've performed in many cities around the country.  For a artist, what is it about performing in New York that is so special?
DM: I think that New York has always been the pinnacle for entertainers.  There's that song, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!"... and I sing that song!  I've always known that my goal is to be successful in New York, and I really do believe that having successes in New York really does set me up to succeed in other places as well.  It's a very highly regarded credential to hold.  On any given night in New York, there are about 300 choices of entertainment -- or, maybe, more like 3000 choices to make!  That competition--"selling" your show-- really does make it a challenge, but that's all part of it.  If you are competing in New York for your "stage space" and your audience and all of that, then it's the best competition to be in!

JR: How true!  So, you are a working artist.  I know that it can be a challenge to be a successful artist-- with all the designing, rehearsing, and planning.  It takes a lot of stamina and time to really perfect your craft.  What helps you to be the best performer that you can be?
DM: I have a background in the corporate world and in education, and I think that those things require a high degree of organization-- and so that really benefits me a lot.  I am able to plan things where I allocate a certain amount of time every day to different activities... and that includes my day job!  Yes, I have one!  

JR: Don't we all!
DM: But I compartmentalize that, and make it work.  I'll be utterly frank with you: There's NOTHING like the fear of failure to motivate me to do my very best work.  You want to make sure that you are  accepted and appreciated by the audiences, and having that goal with it really motivates me to spend as much time and attention to my projects as I can.  I probably spend about four or five hours a day on "Lucky to Be Me".  Coming back here to New York, I want to make sure it is all absolutely perfect.  I know that it WON'T be perfect; no performance is ever perfect.  But I shoot for the highest standard of performance as possible!

It is a challenge to balance the "day job"-- which can sometimes be very "black and white"-- with being a performer, which requires you to be more creative.  It can be a conflict, but we do it because of the love of performing-- which in your case, is clearly obvious!
DM: Absolutely!  It would be wonderful to one day reach that point where I can one day be a full-time performer, but that's not always a very practical expectation!  I know a lot of the cabaret performers in New York, as well as some of the directors and other creative souls who support us, and so many of them have other outlets.  I kind of like having a day job.  I work in the healthcare technology industry, and that work allows me to apply my critical, very detailed technical skills.  That side of my brain needs to be exercised and challenged as well as the creative side.  I need both-- for more than just the "economic" factor of it.  I really strive for that balance in my life. There's this whole creative thing, but I also like the more "cut and dried" kind of structural things that technology provides! 

JR: I have always had the greatest admiration and respect for all musicians.  When you create a CD, that music is here forever.  You are creating your own mark on the world that is here to stay-- and only you, as the artist, can do it! 
DM:  That's a fascinating aspect of the whole business.  So many artists have a message that they feel is critical to deliver.  I certainly put myself in that category.  I think I have something to say that is important for people to hear.  It's at least important for me to formulate that thought-- to put it out in naturalistic form, and hope that the people who need to hear it WILL hear it!
JR: And what is that message?!
DM: That message comes from my entire life.  I was born and raised in a town that has FOUR HOUSES in the middle of farmland in Wisconsin.  When I came out and said, "I'm going to be a singer in New York City when I grow up!", everyone said, "Yeah!  You're dreaming!  That's not practical!" or "You're not the kind of person who would do that!"  And of course, I was the kind of person who would take those statements and allow that to be the motivation to in fact accomplish that goal!   But, I felt that the whole perspective that was shown to me was, "That doesn't happen to people like us!"  (Laughs) My life experiences were very dramatic a a lot of point. (Pauses)  I have been through rehab and recovery experiences, and financial disasters, and lots of things like that.  But I still have my health and still have my voice, and my message really is that: You too can chase your dreams.  You have a right to follow that passion that tugs you along-- and as a matter of fact, you CAN succeed.  When I walk on  the stage at the Metropolitan Room, I am going to think, "Yep!  I'm that kid from little town who everyone said was just too big of a dreamer, and here I am doing it."  I want everyone who hears that show to think, "I can do this thing that I've always dreamed of doing!" as well.  So, that's the message: You can do it too!
JR: I always find it amusing when people say things like that: "Oh, you're just a dreamer.  That's just a dream."  I want to say to them, "Is it better NOT to dream and NOT have goals?"  Isn't life made of goals?
DM: And there's also, "Lower your expectations and you won't be disappointed!" Well, if I expect nothing and I then get nothing, then I have nothing!"  If I expect the moon, the stars, and the sky and then I get less than that, I still have the moon and the stars.  So, I say: Dream big, and don't let anyone tell you that you CAN'T do it!
JR: I'd also add that if anyone tells you to lower your expectations, then you should find someone else to give you advice!
DM: Absolutely!  Those people don't want you to be happy.  They just want you to shut up!

JR: (Laughs) True!  In your shows, you do a wide variety of shows by a wide variety of artists.  Is there a particular artist who you have a special affinity for?  For example, someone whose work you always enjoy performing, or who you always put on your set list?
DM: There actually is.  I have a very close relationship with a British writer named David Kent.  I include one of his songs in every major show that I do.  In fact, we're doing an entire show of strictly David Kent, at Crazy Coq's in London on July 4th.  It's The Metropolitan Room of London!  David is a very up-and-coming British writer. He does a lot of small-scale work: one- or two-person shows.  One of his shows played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  He also does a lot of work in panto in London, which I have done in the U.S.  In fact, I did a touring panto which toured in South Florida a few years ago, with Davy Jones.
JR: Is that THE Davy Jones?
DM: Yes, it's "the" Davy Jones of The Monkees!  David and I both played Dames in these panto productions, which is basically a man in a dress.  It's not drag.  We don't shave anything, we don't wear makeup... We just wear dresses.  It's all very comical and very silly.  Davy and I both played the same "type" of character, which I would normally NEVER otherwise do.  I am normally typecast as a leading man!  I am this six foot tall, blond,blue-eyed baritone.  So, it was really fun to step out into this panto role as a crazy Dame... particular with Davy Jones.  That was a riot.  But I think the fact that both David Kent and I would both do that is one of the reasons we get along so well.  We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we're both very dedicated to the art of entertainment!  He writes a lot of music.  I have a book that has over 80 songs that he's done.  My task is to whittle that down to a 90 minute show this summer.  It's a challenge, but it's a wonderful challenge.  All of these songs are gems, but it's a matter of finding which gems I want to share for that performance in July!

JR: I've always believed that one of the missions of an artist is to introduce new music to the masses... so if you can help introduce David Kent to a larger audience Stateside, then that's a great thing!  The songs we hear today become the classics of tomorrow.
DM: I believe that his voice as a songwriter is one that deserves to be heard.  One of the songs that I have in my show "Lucky to Be Me" which New York audiences will hear over the weekend is a song called "Extraordinary".  It's about that moment when you meet a child or a baby-- maybe the day it was born-- and you extend your finger, and the child grabs your finger.  There's that connection there.  My context is my daughter.  My daughter was born on my birthday.  I will NEVER forget reaching out to touch her, and how connected I felt when she grabbed my finger and held on.  He sees the beauty in that moment and finds a way to put it into words and music that absolutely astonishes me.  This song "Extraordinary" was the first song I selected for this show, because I wanted people to remember that moment in their life where they extended their index finger out to that little one and made that connection.  There's magic there.  He captures it and in words and music in a way that I absolutely couldn't.  I love to pick up his work and interpret it and share that with others. 
JR: Your daughter was born on your birthday?
DM: Yes.  My 23rd birthday, on October 23rd.  She was born on that very day, the "golden birthday".  We were both born on Sundays in the evening.  I was born at 6:08 PM and she was born at 8:06 PM.  Our weights and length measurements were also numerically reciprocal like that.  So, it was a real numerological event.  I think it's a one in a billion chance that your child would be born on your golden birthday.
JR: Oh yes!
DM: That's one of my treasures in my life.  That's why we chose the title of my show: "Lucky To Be Me".  I just think that that was the biggest gift from the universe, that my daughter and I have a very unique connection.  It makes me a very lucky man.  I could list many items that would make me an "unlucky" man as well... but I choose to put them behind me and focus on what makes me lucky.  Again, to be able to walk onto the stage at The Metropolitan Room and sing those songs is a tremendous blessing in my life.  If I can share those moments with the audience, then that is a gift for which I will never be able to say "Thank you!" enough for having.
JR: That's pretty amazing.  Nobody would believe that if it happened in a play or in a movie!
DM: Probably not!  But you know, someone has to have that life, and it may as well be me! (Laughs)

JR: Well, you've worked hard for it!  So, tell me about your special relationship with Julie Wilson.  I am proud to say that I met her a few times myself.  What a great lady!
DM: I met Julie at Yale University in 2011.  I had auditioned for and had been accepted into the International Cabaret Conference.  It was really kind of a training camp for aspiring cabaret performers.  Julie was an adviser there, and I spent a great deal of time with her-- just walking her to lunch, or taking her to the next class or whatever it was.  We just connected very quickly.  Julie always told me how lucky that she was, that she got to do what she was able to do.  She said to me, "You want to sing?  Then sing!"  She really supported me.  She introduced me on stage when I made my debut in New York City five years ago.  She came to my wedding, and celebrated and danced with us.  I saw her at Lincoln Center on her 90th birthday.  Anyone who has their 90th birthday at Lincoln Center... That says so much!  She invited me into her "box" and introduced me to her family as her "adopted son"!  She told Holt, her biological son, "This is your new brother!"  I was just so touched by her grace and her generosity.  Here is a luminary talent who was taking me under her wing and welcoming me in!  I was just shocked.  I'm really pretty humble.  I was like, "Me?  Really?"  I'm still in the process of digesting all of that.  It really hasn't been that many years ago.  The cabaret community has been so welcoming and warm to me.  I could not be any more grateful and appreciative for what life is bringing my way through this wonderful art form.  It just makes me happy and excited and motivated... and it just truly humbles me to be allowed to participate in this community, in this amazing city, after 50 years of wondering, "Would this ever happen?"  I like to believe that anything is possible, and that I don't have limits!  I also like to believe that I am as deserving of these opportunities as anyone else.  It keeps me moving on.  I can't wait to see what happens next!

JR: Indeed!  So, speaking about The Metropolitan Room: Without giving too much away, what surprises can we expect from you at your show this weekend?
DM: Well... I think that the range of music will be a surprise.  I'm delighted about my CD... but if I tell you too much, then it won't be a surprise anymore either! (Laughs) Hmmm... What can I put out there that would be a little enticing? (Pauses) I'll just say that there will be what you might call a "pink moment" which I hope will touch people's hearts very deeply!  And I'll say nothing more about that!

JR: A "pink moment"?  Well, now you have my mind going a mile a minute!
DM: Well then, you'll HAVE to check it out yourself!
JR: Sounds great!  Thanks for speaking with me, David!
Richard Skipper Celebrates presents David Meulemans in "Lucky To Be Me" is at The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, New York City, on Saturday, March 19th, at 7:30PM.  Call (212)206-0440 or visit www. for tickets and more information!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

PRIDE AND JOI: Author and Artist Alexis Hunter Speaks About Her Secret Life and Love with Joi Lansing

Author and Artist Alexis Hunter Speaks About Her Secret Life and Love with Joi Lansing

Back in the late 1940's and 1950's, the blonde bombshell image so often seen on the movie screen and on television was considered by many to be the “ideal” version of the American woman.  At least in the fantasy world of Hollywood, to be golden-haired and busty was to be desirable: the woman that every man lusted for, and the woman that other women aspired to be like.  The eternally iconic sex goddess Marilyn Monroe comes to mind, as does Jayne Mansfield, who reportedly possessed an 1Q of 163 in addition to her oft-repeated measurements of 40-22-35.  And of course, there’s Mamie van Doren, still sexy at 85, who has named herself  “The First Authentic Sex Kitten In Cyberspace” and who has embraced social media with as much gusto as the high school girls at the mall.  But in addition to “The Three M’s”, there was also Joi Lansing.  Lansing was an actress and singer known for her platinum blonde hair, blue eyes, and voluptuous figure.  She appeared in movies, on TV, and on the stage. While Joi  may not be a household name in 2016, it’s very likely that even today’s generation has seen this striking actress on the small screen, particularly with America’s renewed interest in all things nostalgic.  Lansing has had roles in such classic TV shows as “Perry Mason”, “I Love Lucy”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, and “Petticoat Junction”.  She often played, unsurprisingly, the sexy woman who makes an impression just by walking into a room.  More importantly, in addition to her beauty, by all accounts she was also a smart, kind person with a strong work ethic.

In 1969, the 40-year old Lansing made a big impression on a 20-year old aspiring actress named Alexis Hunter (who went by “Nancy Hunter” at the time), another blonde beauty who had been "Miss Charter Oak 1966”.  The admiration was apparently mutual. The sex symbol and the fresh-faced starlet became fast friends and then dedicated lovers. Lansing was married at the time to her agent Stan Todd, but the marriage was, at that point, a platonic partnership.  Alexis and Joi’s relationship would become a secret commitment that would last three years, until Lansing’s untimely death from breast cancer in 1972.  Because of the views of same-sex love at the time, the two women had to keep their intimate partnership very, shall we say... “discreet”.  To ward off any suspicion, Hunter even assumed the role of Joi’s little sister, and her new public persona was “Rachel Lansing”.

Fast forward to 2016, and the two women’s secret love is not a secret anymore.  Alexis Hunter’s new book, “Joi Lansing: A Body To Die For”, tells the story of the last few years of her life with Joi.  The vigorous detailed book chronicles the final years of the sex symbol’s life, when the actress was struggling with both substance abuse as well as the cancer which invaded her body.  However, Hunter’s personal memoir doesn’t just dwell on the dark aspects of Lansing’s last years.  Rather, it focuses on the joys of being with someone who is your true soulmate, and the love story transcends any labels of  “gay”, "straight”, etc.  In addition to endless passages chronicling their time together, the book is also peppered with anecdotes about “old Hollywood”, which cinemaphiles and devotees to pop culture will surely appreciate.

Today, 68-year old Hunter lives in Palm Springs and is devoted to her painting, poetry, and beloved dogs.  She is also determined to keep the memory of Joi Lansing alive via her book.  Alexis and I spoke about the book, her life with Joi, and her artwork:

JR: Hello Alexis!   Congratulations on the new book, Alexis! What was the most difficult thing about bringing "Joi Lansing: A Body to Die For" to light?
AH: Thanks so much Jed!  The most difficult thing was having to relive all of the feelings that we shared-- many of which, as you know by reading the book, were intense.

JR: Yes!  So, it's been over 40 years since you first met Joi. What made 2015 the "right" year to publish your book?
AH: My parents had passed away, and that eliminated a major issue for me.  Sadly, like most parents of that generation, they would not have approved of our relationship. My mother was always worried what the neighbors and her community would think.   I remember one time when I was in the hospital with a concussion caused by my horse, and my gay male roommate helped me to the bathroom when I was wearing a hospital gown.  She found out about it and was horrified!  She started screaming at me and had to be removed by the nursing staff. What would the neighbors think?!  I’ll have to leave town, she said.  I told her he was gay, and that made it even worse.  I thought she was going to have a coronary!

JR:  Wow!  So... in addition to the wonderful moments with Joi, there were also the challenging moments when she was struggling with her disease. How did you make it through those times?
AH: If you’re referring to her substance abuse problems: You do what you have to do when you love someone.  I didn’t think of myself…I was just trying to keep her alive. 

JR:  In the book, we learn a few things about Joi Lansing's personal life... but what would surprise most people to have known about her?
AH: They’d be surprised by knowing that she wasn’t affected by her beauty and her celebrity.  She was always so kind to everyone, not the least bit impressed with herself.  She was very humble.  Oh yes, she also adored animals, especially her little parakeet.

JR: Yes!  I remember reading about the parakeet in the book!   How has the response to "Joi Lansing: A Body To Die For" been so far?
AH: I’m thrilled!  I’m so moved by the letters and e-mails I’ve received.  Everyone has been so loving and kind to me.  I can’t believe how accepting they’ve been.  The personal responses have been so touching.

JR:  That’s great to hear!  The book really transports the reader back to another time... a time when movie stars had a more glamorous aura about them, and seeing a movie meant seeing a movie in the theater on a big screen! What is your fondest memory from that time period?

AH: Exactly what you’re describing!  The glamour of those days was so filled with excitement.  There’s one time I’ll never forget: when Elvis invited us to go back stage and meet him, Priscilla, and Della Reese.  We were there for about half an hour, and he was so charming and gorgeous!   I’ll never forget the kiss he gave me when it was time for us to leave.

JR: Wow!  How jealous am I? (Laughs)  So, do you still keep in touch with anyone in the entertainment world from that era?
AH: Briefly with Eartha Kitt, who came to take me to lunch after Joi died.  Joi and I were very cautious with our relationship, so we didn’t socialize with many people.  But living in the Palm Springs area is a mecca for many of the stars of that time.  I am still in touch with Mamie Van Doren, Ruta Lee, and Kaye Ballard…all of whom had known or worked with Joi.  Unfortunately, almost everyone else I knew from those days has passed on.

JR: That’s sadly true.  While we’re on the subject:  After Joi's passing, did you consider staying in show business yourself?
AH: Frankly, I was so devastated that I had to get as far away from anything that reminded me of “us” as possible.  I moved to Hawaii.

JR:  As an artist, painting and poetry have been a big part of your life. What message do you convey through your artwork?
AH: I hope that my work invokes an emotional response in those who see it.    I know how quickly life can disappear, and I cherish every moment of it.  I express my emotions through my poetry and painting.  They’re great outlets for me.  I’m a very passionate person, and living gives me tremendous joy. 

You and Joi had to pass as sisters to keep your relationship, shall we say, "discreet". In the past few years we have seen the legal recognition of same sex marriages and a few other modest gains. Did you ever believe we'd see this day?
AH: No way!  No, I didn’t. In fact, I hope that by sharing my story, people will understand that the love between same-sex couples can be as loving and kind as heterosexual relationships.  I am so grateful that many straight readers have been moved by my book.  Even one man told me that his relationship with his gay daughter had been healed after reading about my life with Joi.  He understood that love is love….gender doesn’t matter. It made all the difference between them. 

That is so amazing to hear!   So, lastly, is there anyone special in your life today?
AH: Absolutely!  I am completely and madly in love with my three dogs!  My two Shih Tzu’s Sammy and Spanky McFarland, and Richard the poodle.  All three were rescued from a terrible shelter. In fact, I donate a portion of the royalties from the sale of my book to animal rescue.  It’s very important to me.

JR: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Alexis!  Again, congratulations!

                                                    (Alexis and Kaye Ballard)
                                                                                    (Alexis and Jimmie Rodgers)
                 (Alexis Hunter's artwork at The Lon Michels Gallery in Palm Springs)

“Joi Lansing: A Body To Die For”
by Alexis Hunter is now available.

A LOST SHAKESPEARE PLAY GROWS IN BROOKLYN: "Double Falsehood" Comes to New York City!

A LOST SHAKESPEARE PLAY GROWS IN BROOKLYN: "Double Falsehood" Comes to New York City!

At the opening night of Letter of Marque Theater Company's Double Falsehood at The Irondale Center in Brooklyn, one of the creative minds behind the show was overheard telling an attendee, "This show isn't like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, where the audience at least knows the story. Most people don't know anything about this play! It's a risk." While Double Falsehood may have been first produced in 1727, the themes of morality, sexual ethics, and equality (in regard to both gender and class) which were explored centuries ago remain as relevant as ever in 2016. As directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, this new production features moments of laugh-inducing comedy alongside provocative tragedy, all performed by an energetic and talented cast. The end result is a play which, despite being over 300 years old, hasn't lost its ability to both entertain as well as to bring out some timeless emotions.
Double Falsehood
is considered to be a "controversial" work-- not so much because of its content, but rather for the debate over just how much of the play was actually written by Mr. Shakespeare. It's an emotionally charged debate that has been studied, argued, and revisited through the years. What does seem to be agreed upon is that Double Falsehood is an adaptation of a truly lost play by Shakespeare and his collaborator John Fletcher known as Cardenio, which is itself an adaptation of a subplot of the Spanish novel Don Quixote. Shakespeare expert Lewis Theobald is regarded by some to be the actual author of "Double Falsehood", with The Bard credited as an "influence". Other voices have argued that Shakespeare and Fletcher co-authored Double Falsehood outright, with Theobald's role being more of an "editor" with minor contributions. Most recently, in 2015, the play was determined by researchers Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker to have the right to be called a bona fide work of William Shakespeare, while still giving some credit to Theobald and Fletcher as well.

Regardless of the authorship dispute, there's no doubt that fans and scholars of The Bard will recognize Shakespeare's distinctive elements within Double Falsehood. These include the writer's flamboyant use of metaphor and trope, the famous soliloquies, and the equal complexity of both the male and female characters. Those characters include Julio (Zach Libresco), a young man of "modest" birth and son of Camillo (Tom Giordano). Julio loves dark-haired beauty Leonora (Montana Lampert Hoover), daughter of Don Bernardo (Ariel Estrada)-- and she feels the same about him. Contrasting with Julio is Henriquez (Adam Huff), the privileged son of Duke Angelo (Nolan Kennedy), brother of Roderick (Welland H. Scripps), and more than a bit of a rogue. Henrique sexually assaults lovely local girl Violante (Poppy Liu), propelling her to flee to the countryside. He then courts Leonora, completing the "double falsehood" of the play's title. The climax of the first half of the play comes with a sword fight between former friends Henrique and Julio. Julio, defeated, ultimately goes into exile, while the despondent Leonora seeks refuge in a nunnery. Cross-dressing, heady confrontations, and the re-working of family dynamics lead to a conclusion (expertly realized by the director and cast, by the way...) where a traditionally "happy" ending lies alongside a more disturbing one. The playwright's version of "justice" is served at this conclusion, although modern audiences will indeed be ready for a post-show debate or at least discussion.

For Double Falsehood-- or any other 18th century play, for that matter-- to succeed in 2016, the cast and creative forces behind the piece must have great respect, bordering on affection, for their source material. Indeed, this young and dynamic cast proves that they have it. The original dialogue stays intact. However, while being loyal to the author's words, the cast also seems to be simultaneously aware of the play's archaic yet deliciously over-indulgent language. The players clearly have fun with it, and they invite the audience to do the same. An example is when Julio is waxing poetic to Leonora about her beauty:
Venus will frown if you disprize her Gifts,
That have a Face would make a frozen Hermit
Leap from his Cell, and burn his Beads to kiss it;
Eyes, that are nothing but continual Births
Of new Desires in Those that view their Beams.
You cannot have a Cause to doubt.
(True, most people don't speak like this anymore, but in a culture where "LOL", "OMG", and "IDK" dominates our lexicon, it almost makes this author wish we DID return to more flowery language!)

Of course, dialogue alone doesn't make a play, and it's more than just quaint references to "artless love" and "one thousand perjured vows" that makes Double Falsehood so successful. As a testament to the talents of the cast, even the wordless acting makes an impact, with the final scene perhaps being the quintessential example. This production also features some priceless directorial touches. One segment features a trio of singers, complete with ukulele(!), who break into an unexpected musical number. It's deliciously corny... and absolutely hilarious. The "movable set" design is an effective touch, as are the framed "windows" which transform into living animation cells. The play's eclectic costume design serves the play very well. The older male characters wear 18th century-style tricorne hats and waistcoats, and the younger ones wear fashions of an undetermined style, blending vintage and modern-- although, to be honest, no one would look twice if these trans-generational fashion hybrids were worn on the streets of New York City today.

So... To answer the question: Was bringing the unappreciated, controversial play Double Falsehood to the stage a "risk"? Well, maybe. But as it turned out, this was a "risk" well worth taking!

Letter of Marque Theater Company's Double Falsehood runs through April 9th at
The Irondale Center, 85 S. Oxford Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY 11217​. Visit for more information.

(All production photos by Amanda Hinkle. After-show photos by Jed Ryan)