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In a new Wallace Shawn play, the actor leaves Lypsinka behind
In the American premiere of Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House, John Epperson plays Ted, a composer who performs some incidental music on the piano, banters with the fellow guests gathered for a reunion, and reveals a dark, startling secret.
For some theatre fans, it will be equally startling to see Epperson in this sort of role. After all, he is best known as Lypsinka, a wildly stylized, lip-syncing chanteuse that he has performed (in drag) for 35 years.
Epperson was surprised himself when Shawn invited him to be in the ensemble piece that also features Matthew Broderick, Michael Tucker, Jill Eikenberry, Claudia Shear, Annapurna Sriram, and Larry Pine. (The New Group production plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center through March 12.)
"He said that his plays are an acquired taste, and he thought I might not appreciate it," the actor recalls. But Shawn also told him that though he had written the script several years ago – it premiered at London's National Theatre in 2015 – he felt it was timelier than ever.
Set in an old theatre hang-out, the one-act show brings together the participants in a fictitious, failed drama, Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars, for a 10th-anniversary party. But in this sociopolitical parable, the world has changed in the past decade: theatre has all but died, entertainment is entirely escapist, and enemies are everywhere. Think Kafka at the Players Club.
"It's not a backstage musical," says Epperson dryly of the darkly haunting reunion that makes Follies look like a tea party. "Ted is a fairly quiet, though opinionated, person who doesn't have a whole lot to say until he blows his top and suddenly this other side of him is seen. And when he does, I told Scott [Elliott, the show's director] that it feels like a Bette Davis moment, like in The Star, where she's fairly low-key until she gets into a scene with her sister and her brother-in-law and she suddenly turns on them."
But Epperson is keeping the Davis mannerisms at bay. This role calls for a very different type of acting. "There was a time when I would have been very intimidated by all of this because I had almost zero training when I started," he says. "But not now. I'm almost 62, so it's not easy to intimidate me."
However, when he first moved to New York from Hazlehurst, Mississippi, it was another story.
"One of the reasons I created Lypsinka was because I had this desire to be on the stage, but also the fear," he recalls. "So how do you work through that? So I created the character of Lypsinka, which got me on stage. But I was always hiding behind a wall of sound, makeup, and another character."
As he points out in his autobiographical solo stage work, Show Trash, it was a double-edged sword. "It's opened all kinds of doors for me, but it's also closed a lot of doors, too."
Agent and managers would say they didn't quite know what to do with him. "The lip-syncing aspect of it was so unique and the drag aspect of it was so limiting they couldn't wrap their heads around the idea," he recalls. "No one then thought of me as being a traditional actor."
He thought playing the role of the Wicked Stepmother in City Opera's 2004 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella or appearing in the Oscar-winning film Black Swan might lead to additional acting opportunities. That didn't happen. His 2015 drag role as Queen Aggravain in Once Upon a Mattress was helpful, he adds, "but it's not like I'm being asked to audition for a lot of things."
Still, he has managed to craft a decades-long career with resilient, inner-Lypsinka strength.
"Inner John Epperson strength," he corrects.
The Shawn piece finally gives him a chance to play a role in a work with serious intentions which also casts him in a different light. "One of the things that the play is about is one of the things that Meryl Streep said on the Golden Globe Awards -- and she said plenty -- when she talked about the possibility of the death of the arts," he says. "The play is also about how decent, intelligent people might have to change their values and behavior in order to survive in a time when there are questionable public officials in charge."
And as for his Lypsinka following? Will they accompany him to these new frontiers? "My fans might ask, 'Where are the false eyelashes, where's the wig'" Epperson says. "But hopefully that won't stop them from coming."
Follow Frank Rizzo at @ShowRiz. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Monique Carboni. Top photo: Michael Tucker (left) and John Epperson
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