Last week’s Thursday at 576 presented Anal Flora, a performance organized by Silk Worm and Britney Smearz that featured dancing, singing, roller skates, and a whole lot of clacking high heels. Many of the performers were in gender-bending costuming but even in the more hetero performances, there was attention to finding jokes that tread the fine line between disgusting and cute or awful and hilarious—the stuff that camp is made of. Anal Flora had an outstanding level of unity across the various genres of performance, mostly showcasing a fun and healthy way to do drag that centered on queerness and difference.
An unfinished conversation
In the first incense-filled act, Calvin Studebaker—who played Pentheus, the King, in The Bacchae last year— performed with Peter Oathout as a couple engaged in patterns of abuse and possessiveness.
As someone who religiously tracked Pentheus in the interactive performance last year, I was struck by the parallels between the pseudo-seduction scene underway on stage here and the intimate scene between Pentheus and Dionysus as the king dons women’s clothing.
Here, Studebaker wore a Sia-inspired, Elastic Heart-esque leotard, with a small skirt that reminded me of the heels and dress he wore in that other performance. But the similarities laid more in their ways of interacting. In The Freeks’ production of bacchae last spring, Tucker Bryant as Dionysus enchants and intoxicates Pentheus, forcing him to wear women’s clothing as he forcibly strips his clothes just as here Oathout writhes against Studebaker.
The receptions of the performances, however, were wildly different. As alluring as the pulsing music and pink lighting was, the sensual seduction in bacchae was meant to be horrifying. One person clearly held all the power as Dionysus commanded Pentheus and (spoiler if you still haven’t read the two millennia old play,) ultimately, Pentheus dies because of this.
In the 576 lounge, Studebaker’s body was no less abused. Limp and lifeless for most of the scene, he was subjected to Peter’s actions. Yet laughter somehow permeated the layers of relationship abuse, possessiveness, and assault that the performance was addressing.
Did people laugh perhaps because a queer actor was “seducing” a straight actor? I’m truly horrified that the audience reacted this way, though perhaps some of the blame lies in the more theatrical and borderline-silly facial expressions of Oathout’s anger.
But I do not want to remove the blame entirely from the production itself since it was undeniably and unexpectedly triggering of various forms of violence and abuse. I fear the performance—during which Studebaker shattered a glass candle holder in revenge—resonated too closely to the true violence committed to students on our campus for it to prompt dialogue. As one such student subjected to this violence before, I had to look away.
The performance’s serious tone was in stark contrast with the remainder of the evening, packed full of silly dance and song. If this performance wanted to instigate dialogue, when were they hoping to have a much needed debrief? Somewhere between the Broadway show tunes and ukulele campfire songs?
The night was advertised as a series of performances book-ended by musical sets. Were people primed to have this kind of talk? Were the performers willing to engage in it? To display such violence without the chance to reflect on it is wrong because all that does is leave the aesthetics of violence without the prompt for change or healing our campus so requires.
Prancing, fan kicks, and gender politics
Wrapped in a luxurious fur coat, Will Funk coyly eyed the crowd, breaking the cycle of violence that the last performance left us with. Posed on the stage, Funk’s overdone flickering eyelashes initiated the sequence of silly performances to come.
Once the music began, the statuesque diva came to life. Funk, our former tree, pranced along the stage, translating last year’s erratic side-of-the-field kicking and dancing to the sensual display of his (fantastic!) “tits and ass” to the song, “Dance Ten Looks Three” from A Chorus Line.
Choosing a song that glorifies tits and asses is risky. Such a proclamation can easily veer into the gender essentialism that can make drag easily and clearly problematic. These are features commodified by our heteropatriarchal world and men subject women to unwanted attention and violence over their looks everyday.
So a man singing a song about the glory of one’s breasts and ass might ignore the darker parts of living as a woman—not just performing one on the stage (this is similar to the ways appropriative costuming glorifies aspects of a minority, underrepresented, and often abused culture without addressing inequalities).
Yet in the context of the queerness of the evening, the proclamation of having tits and ass felt less like a reduction of femininity to these assets than a satisfaction of one’s desire to perform and be read as femme.
For example, earlier in the evening, Britney told Silk Worm, who fumbled through some introductions, that those intros were “as smooth as your cheeks.” Silk Worm replied, “Gender dysphoria isn’t funny.”
Not all of the female-impersonating drag performers were transfemme, but that option and awareness of trans identity is precisely the context that drag must provide if it wants to avoid blatant sexism. The entire atmosphere of the evening acknowledged that gender was fluid. These performances on stage were no different than the leggings and skirts or suits that people designated-male-at-birth wore in the crowd; we were all performing gender.
And none of us were attempting to essentialize what our genders meant. Funk’s performance did not reduce femininity to breasts and ass. Instead, the choice of song was particularly nuanced since it tapped into the desire to be appreciated for who one is.
In the musical, the character who sings this song was once rated a 10 for dancing, but for looks, a 3. She takes that into her own hands by paying for plastic surgery. As unfair as this fact is, her cosmetically-altered new look allows her worth as a dancer to be realized. This resonated with comments my trans femme friends make, namely that they feel safest and get misgendered least when they present hard femme.
This performance was drag done right, translating a role for a woman dancer to something that spoke to gender and performance more broadly—whether such a statement was intentional or not.
A German spiritual awakening
“I need to piss,” said Liesel von Tramp, the creation of froshperson Jake Conant. “I can feel my balls in my abdomen.”
These were the only words the character uttered on stage. As someone who occasionally wears tight femme clothes, I can understand the sentiment. As part of the performance, I’m not sure what that means, but it’s bold.
The performance paired a rhyming, evangelist derailing against celebrity culture with a German-language version of “My Heart Will Go On”—again, I’m not sure what it means, but, again, it’s bold.
I’d love to see a full set to see what other ideas emerge. Were we supposed to ridicule the televangelist? Or is it about the objective silliness of the German language?
But I loved it as it was. The lip-syncing was near-perfect as the televangelist, bubble-gum chewing voice. Though I’m sure the religious talk was once given seriously, having these words emerge from the mouth of a laced-up drag queen had the crowd and myself hooting. And confused, but that dissonance is fine.
And then some drag kings!
A group of three drag kings appeared on stage following an illustrious introduction highlighting their world tours and past discography. It felt like SNL’s Garth and Kit singing skits, except you kept anticipating the performance to get good. They coughed into each other’s mouths, pecked each other on the lips, and began pacing along the stage singing nonsensical noises.
Because my life is so queer, instead of laughing along, I was thinking about how no one batted an eye that one of the singers had his own beard while the other two performers had to paint theirs on. The performance was hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but my mind kept thinking about the ways in which drag can and should be co-opted by people of all genders to express any gender, even if they align.
There is more to drag than deviation and subversion. The best drag challenges and over performs any gender expression. So cis-men playing men in drag? I’m absolutely here for it.
Reimagining campfire songs
Perched on a small chair, Mariah Oxley warned the audience that her song about start-up culture “is funnier if you knew the grade I got in CS 105.” In a room of people who went out on a Thursday night during Week 6, jokes about CS majors were bound to stick, so the braver performance was her first song about the timeless ballad topic, pink eye.
Even though she was not dressed in drag, her ode to farting on faces, pillows, and the bloody revenge-killing her infected eye inspired was of the same off-the-wall but on-the-mark matter that makes up the best campy drag.
Because of this tone, it wasn’t strange that a straight person sang to a crowd dressed in various forms of drag themselves. The silliness resonated with the crowd who joined in the chorus—cheerfully lamenting, “oh my pink eye” which, you know, happened to rhyme also with “dead guy.”
In which I died from fear and laughter
Heart-poundingly nerve-wracking, the best performance of the night was Silk Worm and Britney Smearz’ comedic union of call-the-babysitter horror films (the trope has its own Wikipedia page) and Adele. Now, I have a lot of thoughts on Adele (read my review of her newest single, “Hello”) so me not railing against the splicing up of her song means it had to have been done really well. And it really was.
Adele’s uttered “hellos” alternated with the voice of a home intruder warning the babysitter “to check the kids.” While juxtaposing these two phone-wielders is simply hilarious on its own since we all know Adele is an angel, the crazy swaying of the caller, Britney, and the horrified faces of the mime-like Silk Worm as baby sitter are what carried the performance.
Everything was exaggerated. The genius of the premise is that it’s fully-realized from the tiniest details—the thick makeup is metonymic for the thick, palpable fear Silk Worm manifests on the stage for us. Form and content are perfectly in unison here.
This performance spoke more to camp than any academic treatise ever could. It left me with an understanding of how complicated this aesthetic is since it emerges somewhere between the fake and the real and ultimately demands the paradoxical: a professional control of amateurism.
Of course, just as the performance was ending and the cast was celebrating and everyone’s considering getting more beer and dancing and getting ready to leave, suddenly the performers’ celebratory conga line became a human centipede.
Because, after all, this is Anal Flora and it would be nothing without the queer, the sexual, and the abject. And what a perfect visual representation of the night than people crawling on all fours, face in each other’s asses, centipeding around the room to a stunned crowd. Pink eye, fluids, eating people out—no one was ready for it but that’s exactly what we came for, isn’t it?