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The Passion of the Crawford

David Finkle appraises John "Lypsinka" Epperson's new show, all about screen queen Joan Crawford. logo
Lypsinka in The Passion of the Crawford
(Photo © TWEED)
John Epperson, appearing as his alter ego Lypsinka, has always delved into crazed womanhood for his groundbreaking shows. In raising lip synchronization from a parlor trick to an art, he has incorporated a sizable dollop of Joan Crawford's affect. The Passion of the Crawford is devoted entirely to the Oscar-winning actress who was born Lucille Le Sueur, tried Billie Cassin as a screen moniker, then landed on Joan Crawford and stuck with that name through thick and thin.

There was plenty of both: the years at Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and as an independent agent, the periods when she went from hit flick to hit flick and those during which she was considered box-office poison. This is the woman who took on certain perceived duties of Hollywood stardom as no one else ever has. Although she was a strict and perhaps abusive parent, she never ceased believing that fans were the ones who put her on top and kept her there. As a result, she was famously good to her supporters. Crawford had a reputation not only for regularly corresponding with her fans but also for inviting them into her home and joining them in cleaning her bathroom.

Because of her convictions, Crawford agreed to be interviewed by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973 at Manhattan's Town Hall. (This was just after Marlon Brando had been given an Oscar for The Godfather.) The talk was part of a superstar series that Springer, a well-known movie nut, was emceeing. It's this interview, which can be accessed on the Internet, that Epperson does verbatim in The Passion of the Crawford with Steve Cuiffo lip-synching as Springer but looking like early-television personality Robert Q. Lewis.

Passion, which appropriates Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ title to good comic effect, is something of an appropriation all the way around; it's akin to the work of visual artists like Sherrie Levine, who replicate the recognizable works of predecessors. During the relatively brief program, Epperson appears as Crawford in the most astonishingly understated manner, displaying his impeccable lip-synching techniques. He mouths Crawford's lines without introducing irony into his behavior. He doesn't spoof Crawford in any obvious way; he's simply playing Crawford playing herself.

That concept is what makes this show superlative. The master impersonator distinguishes his work by adding facial expressions and gestures that cleverly match what Crawford is saying while, at the same time, commenting on what she created out of herself. Throughout, the star's sanctimony is paraded as humility. "I live for today, preparing for tomorrow," Crawford says in response to one of Springer's questions; Epperson gilds such utterances with the smallest self-satisfied moues while constantly manipulating a red handkerchief.

Although the Springer one-on-one is the spine of Epperson's endeavor, he also interpolates at scattered intervals a Christmastime interview that Crawford did, plus some sound clips from at least one of her four appearances on the Hollywood Palace TV variety hour. Occasionally, there's singing, as if Crawford is having eerie flashbacks. And there's a segment in which a harried Joan has to answer a string of disruptive telephone calls. The latter conceit has always been a favorite bit for Epperson followers, and he doesn't let them (us) down this time around.

Neither will Epperson advocates be disappointed with the work of his usual creative team. Kevin Malony directs with the kind of attention to detail that is the hallmark of any Lypsinka outing; undoubtedly, he's been a big help with all the by-play involving Cuiffo as Springer. Nathan Elsener has designed the simple set, making sure that a bottle of Crawford's beloved (by marriage) Pepsi is prominently displayed on a small table. It's never touched and is only obliquely referred to. Dan Rucks has put together a Crawford montage that precedes the star's arrival. (Make that "the stars' arrival.")

Lypsinka's look -- worked out with great care -- is a cunning collaboration. Nothing is merely for show. Ramona Ponce has designed a form-fitting black dress with a bejeweled neck piece, and there are three black-and-red wraps with which Crawford contrives to wow the crowds. As always, Louis Braun has done Lypsinka's make-up, making sure that the studied Crawford lips are as properly exaggerated as the lady desired. Paul Huntley has designed a wig with its bangs drawn back like parentheses, and Grady Hendrix has provided the rings that Crawford wears like a prized hub-cap collection. (Curiously, the background music that Epperson uses is the theme from The Loretta Young Show.)

Before the Crawford-Springer chat gets underway but after the montage of Crawford doing costume tests, an amiable magician billed as The Amazing Russello comes out. He pulls off a few tricks, one of which is making a handkerchief appear, change colors, and disappear. What, if anything, Russello's turn has to do with Crawford only becomes apparent when the actress arrives and eventually produces her own red handkerchief. Well, abracadabra! Epperson, who thinks of everything, begins the evening with a conjurer in order to make the super-smart point that what the audience is about to see is illusion, Hollywood-style. It's an inspired idea, and this is an inspired show.

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