Review: The Drag Seed Takes On Evil Children in the Gay Caroline Era
Chicago's Hell in a Handbag Productions brings its shrewd parody of a cult classic movie to La MaMa.
Americans have long suspected their young to be touched by evil, whether through demonic possession (The Omen) or merely a bloody cult arising from the tedium of a ho-hum childhood (Children of the Corn). In the postwar years especially, American cinema conveyed a nagging fear than the suburban heaven wrought by a triumphant nation had become the breeding ground for the spawn of Satan. Could such anxiety also apply to a niche community — one with a special appreciation for camp cinema? Playwright David Cerda poses the question with The Drag Seed (now at La MaMa), his irreverent yet surprisingly astute send-up of the film that started the genre.
That would be the 1956 thriller The Bad Seed, about a seemingly adorable 8-year-old with a penchant for murder. Cerda (who is the artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions) transposes the story from Eisenhower's America to our modern day (or at least some version of it): Connie Lingus (Ed Jones) and her absent wife (referred to here as "other mother") have adopted Carson (Patrick O'Keefe), a budding drag queen with an intense competitive streak. They (a preferred pronoun that must be respected…or else) are enrolled in the Josephine Baker Rainbow Academy, an ultra-progressive school that encourages every gender expression and dietary quirk. But when a busted queen with a wonky eye bests Carson in the school talent competition (with a Joni Mitchell cover, no less) Carson becomes enraged and resolves to snatch the crown…by any means necessary.
Cerda, who also appears onstage as overly involved landlady Miss Charles, may have chosen his character name as a tribute to the theatrical visionaries to whom his style is indebted: Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch (the Bad Seed character on which she is based, "Miss Breedlove," seems like too obvious a joke to pass up without other intentions). Fans of Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Busch's still-growing catalogue of plays (from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to The Confession of Lily Dare) will find plenty to love about The Drag Seed, a play that manages to feel vintage while still having a caboodle of sharp things to say about 2022.
Of course, there's also RuPaul Charles, the reigning monarch of our gay Caroline era, who not only has managed to monetize drag through an international franchise of reality television competitions, but has almost single-handedly transformed an art once relegated to dim bars and secretive pageants into an extracurricular pursuit that middle-class parents can accept — and sometimes even encourage. Like any good dramatist, Cerda looks at this allegedly smooth sailing for queer Americans with an eye toward the horror lurking beneath the waves. Most urgently, he forces us to consider if the runaway popularity of drag and Drag Race (Carson is a huge fan) has created a generation of narcissistic sociopaths.
O'Keefe certainly plays that role with maniacal relish, prancing around in shorty overalls and a pink pussycat wig (spot-on costumes by Gregory Graham). With his voice, he seems to be channeling the salty sweetness of Tatianna (from Season 2). A vacant gaze and plastered smile do little to conceal the truth: Carson is the twink from hell.
Jones matches him beat for beat with a performance that seems to have been extracted straight from a black-and-white movie and then run around the Tilt-A-Whirl a few too many times. Radiating anxiety, his increasingly breathless delivery tells the story of a nice lesbian in way over her sensible updo.
There are other memorable performances: Elizabeth Lesinski has a scene-stealing turn as a mascara-streaked mother in mourning, beaten down by the pressure of being straight in a queer world. Tyler Anthony Smith endows several supporting roles with outsize dopiness. And the magnificent Kelly Anchors had me rolling in the aisle as wild-eyed handyperson Lee, wearing one of the most horrendous wigs I've seen onstage since the Broadway run of The Prom (design by Keith Ryan).
Under the zippy direction of Cheryl Snodgrass, the first act fizzes like freshly poured prosecco at drag brunch. Lauren Nichols's set conveys the purposefully anachronistic setting while also offering a few surprises. Sound designer DJ Douglass and lighting designer Liz Cooper seamlessly collaborate to create several retro cinematic moments. Unfortunately, the second act drags as The Drag Seed stretches to two hours, 10 minutes — a bit too long for the task at hand (one wonders if a full bar at intermission might help the audience overlook this dramaturgical slack).
That noted, The Drag Seed is a riot — a clever satire of our shifting manners told through the kaleidoscope of drag. Crucially, it never takes itself too seriously, which feels like a breath of fresh air in our overly severe age. The final performance is this Sunday, so don't miss it.