John Epperson has made a name for himself, and that name, of course, is Lypsinka. Noble of stature, moody of temperament, and with a voice not her own, Epperson’s notorious drag diva has returned to the East Village after a lengthy absence, and is performing not one, but three different shows, in repertory, through January 3rd.
First up is The Passion of the Crawford, last seen here in 2005. It may have a dated title (a riff on the 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ), but the piece itself and the goddess Lypsinka seem timeless. The story, if one can call it that, is an exploration of film-great Joan Crawford that careens from homage to camp, from dark truths to surreal imaginings, and which begins with a montage of actual Crawford clips, culled from the more than 90 features she made in a nearly 50-year career. The briskly edited piece feels like a dare to Lypsinka to bring it on, if she still can. And if anyone in the audience indeed had doubts that Epperson, at almost 60 years of age, is not up to the task, they were immediately corrected by his glam entrance: Epperson in the guise of Lypsinka in the guise of Joan Crawford, aglow with pure Hollywood star power, inhabiting the character like a wo(man) possessed.
Once our eyes have a moment to take in the spectacle, and the killer dress from costumer Ramona Ponce, we settle in for the centerpiece of the evening: a re-enactment of a 1973 Crawford interview, conducted by John Springer (Steve Cuiffo and Scott Wittman alternate in the role), that was held in front of an audience at New York’s Town Hall. As the actual audio recording of the interview plays, the actors lip sync, performing a kind of acting in reverse. Their line deliveries are pre-established and they are seated throughout, so gestures and facial expressions take on all sorts of added power. Epperson is masterful in this, able to earn howling laughter from a quivering lip, a batting eyelash, and a cat-like clenching of the hand.
It also doesn’t hurt that the interview itself is fascinating. Crawford tells of working with Garbo, dealing with directors both sweet and savage, and of the glass ceiling faced by women working in the studio system of her day. The most powerful moments, however, come when we are reminded that not only is Epperson a manufactured Crawford, but that Crawford herself was sometimes something less than a fully self-actualized human. We learn of her inability to give birth (she adopted 5 children) and that her name was actually chosen by means of a contest (she was born Lucille Fay LeSueur). And as for her infamous child-raising skills, Crawford and her interviewer briefly lapse out of the Town Hall interview and into a Christmastime interview where her thoughts on rewarding her kids are succinctly and devastatingly exhibited.
Another tricky aspect of this particular type of theater is that there was no playwright in control of the interview, so, as in the real world, many poignant moments fall where one least expects. Perhaps the most cutting line of the evening is a throw-away said in a near hush. As Crawford remembers a performer she had previously forgotten, she quietly wonders, “How can you forget a career?”
Two short end pieces round out the night. Neither has the depth or complexity of the interview and would have worked better as opening salvos. The first has Crawford reciting an odd children’s poem as only Mommie Dearest could. The second is a brilliantly conceived mash-up of Crawford one-liners delivered to music amid a cacophony of flashing lights and ringing telephones. It’s female power at its most abstract.
The Passion of the Crawford – Soundtrack by John Epperson, Directed by Kevin Malony.
WITH: John Epperson (Lypsinka/Joan Crawford), Steve Cuiffo (Interviewer) and Scott Wittman (Interviewer).
Scenic design by Jim Boutin; Costume design by Ramona Ponce; Lighting by Mark Simpson; Sound by Matt Berman; at The Connelly Theater, 220 East Fourth Street, 212-982-2287, Through January 3, http://www.lyp3.com, Running Time: 80 minutes.