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Although the Peccadillo Theater Company's new comedy Drop Dead Perfect sends up a wide range of American cultural touchstones---from The Glass Menagerie to I Love Lucy to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?---its greatest inspiration is arguably the high-camp, cross-dressing work of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As with Ludlam classics like The Mystery of Irma Vep, Drop Dead Perfect is a smorgasbord of high- and lowbrow references, and it stars a leading man decked out in glorious drag.
In this case, the gender-bending star is Everett Quinton, Ludlam's longtime artistic and romantic partner and a Ridiculous fixture during the company's heyday in the 70s and 80s. When Quinton enters in a fitted 50s gown, meticulously coiffed auburn wig, and jungle red nails, he seems absolutely in his element. It's as though the part of Idris Seabright---an overbearing matriarch who's keeping a major secret from her beautiful ward, her long-lost Latin nephew, and her pill-pushing lawyer---has been written just for him.
And perhaps it has been, though the credited playwright, Erasmus Fenn, isn't saying. That's mostly because he doesn't exist. "If I may be slightly coy about it, I'll say he speaks only to me," says director Joe Brancato, the founder and artistic director of upstate New York's Penguin Rep, where Drop Dead Perfect had its world premiere last summer. (It's currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clements.) "He was born and raised in the Bronx, just as I was, but he's agoraphobic. He doesn't want to besmirch his life with the business of the theatre like doing press; he's a child at heart."
Brancato, however, gleefully reminisces about going to see Ridiculous shows. "The abandon was amazing," he says. "They were just breaking all rules and at the same time saluting everything that was great on film and on stage, and that always stayed with me. I remember Everett so clearly, which is why I asked him to do this play."
Though Quinton forged his career playing what Brancato calls "gargoyle women," he hasn't trod the boards as a broad since 2010's Devil Boys From Beyond. "I had been praying for a role that was as meaty as things I had done in the past," Quinton says. "I cut my teeth on big juicy parts like Idris, and I wonder if that gets in my way at auditions. The whole 'tone it down' thing is my dilemma. I object to terms like 'over-the-top.' To me it's just high comedy. It's like the Restoration comedy of our time, all these fabulous extreme characters."
After originating the role of Idris last year, Quinton says he jumped at the chance to dance in her shoes again---literally (characters frequently break into choreographed routines). "What's that old adage with Shakespeare: You do it once and then you do it right? I don’t want to minimize what we did last year, but this year it feels like heaven."
Idris harks back to Quinton's days at the Ridiculous, when audiences relished seeing him play the villainess. "When the Ridiculous was coming to its close---no matter what we did, we couldn't keep it going; it was running like hell to stay behind---one of the last productions we did was Carmen," he says. "Although I had always poo-pooed it, the public seems to like me in evil, murderous roles. They are fun to play, but then you go off into the world and no wonder you're acting so weird, because people expect you to be nice!"
Of course, making a cross-dressing comedy work isn't as easy as just putting on a dress. "Nine times out of ten, when playing a character of the opposite sex, performers go for the fake and phony," Quinton says. "Joe knew this, and he made sure it didn't happen. A lot of directors approach Charles' plays like they're unnatural comedies, and that's why they fail. I remember the day Jason [Edward Cook, a cross-dressing newbie who plays Idris' pseudo-daughter Vivien] made some kind of grand gesture. Joe brought him back and got him to an emotional center. Without that nothing works."
Even though he's in his sixties now and has been directing shows (including the recent 30th anniversary Off Broadway revival of Irma Vep), Quinton has no plans to stop performing. "I need work!" he says. "I'm not going to be able to retire unless my ship comes in. And if it does, I hope it's a cruise ship and that I get a job on it."
Raven Snook is TDF's associate editor of online content
Photos by Ed McCarthy