The Frederick News-Post

 

Bill D'Agostino: Dramatic License
John et Joan
Originally published February 15, 2007

In "The Passion of the Crawford," theatrical magician John Epperson plays Lypsinka, a drag queen lip-sync artist, who in turn portrays actress Joan Crawford.

Since it's complicated I'll repeat the show's premise: A man plays a woman mouthing the words of a legendary movie star known for endlessly reinventing herself.

If you haven't figured it out yet, "The Passion of the Crawford" is a show about the very act of performance.

This slim (70 minutes) but satisfying production is alternatively gut-bustingly amusing and stomach-churningly ghastly. Its been touring across the country and opened last weekend at D.C.'s Studio Theatre, where it runs until Feb. 25.

The "dialogue," such as it is, comes from a few sources, but primarily from a rare recorded interview at New York's Town Hall that Crawford gave towards the end of her life. During the chat, the famed actress tries to be gracious, but ends up -- unintentionally -- revealing more about her own pettiness.

"I never knew there was so much love," she says as she enters the stage to boisterous applause. The recorded ovation, played over the Studio Theatre's sound system, far exceeds that which the live audience gives to Lypsinka's lip-quiverring entrance, and there's an uncomfortable gap between them.

That fraught space is exactly the zone, between fantasy and reality, that Epperson and director Kevin Malony are exploiting. They dare us to take an up-close look at one of Hollywood's most famous -- and famously creepy -- celebrities, and in the process we're forced to question our own star-gazing tendencies.

During the interview, Crawford discusses her feelings about directors and other actors, but also makes bizarre asides about her life and personal philosophies. "This is what I say to young actors and young actresses: Learn to breathe, learn to speak, but first -- learn to feel."

Even as he intentionally and humorously overplays Crawford's egomania, Epperson also shows us the insecurity lurking behind Crawford's tough-as-nails exterior. The performer uncomfortably fidgets with her bejeweled outfit (Romona Ponce's costumes are esquisite) only moments after recreating some of Crawford's melodramatic poses. Epperson also creates an unspoken tension between Crawford and her interviewer.

That sycophant is played by Steve Cuiffo, himself a high-order theatrical wizard. Cuiffo even manages to perfectly "sync" his shoulders with the interviewer's flaterring chuckles.

In life, the "real" Joan Crawford elicited the kind of idolatry that only massive superstars attain. Her 1977 New York Times obituary said she was the "epitome of timeless glamour who personified for decades the dreams and disappointments of millions of American women." But she was also reviled by some critics and after her death, her daughter Christina famously wrote and published "Mommie Dearest," claiming Crawford had abused her children and adopted them only for the publicity.

In "The Passion of the Crawford," the first Town Hall interview is occasionally interjected by a second interview (available, as of last week, on the web site YouTube) featuring a younger Crawford discussing the bizarre Christmas traditions she inflicts on her four adopted children, who are forced to give away some of their presents "as good training."

"I always see to it that they give up something that they really love," she said. "Otherwise they don't really learn the value of giving."

That interview also features chats with Crawford's two eldest children, Christina and Christopher. Both are perfected mimed by Cuiffo, who stands upright as the daughter and slouches as the son.

As high-level camp, "The Passion of the Crawford" is undeniably amusing. Towards the end, Crawford -- or perhaps Lypsinka -- suffers an emotional breakdown as phrases and names from the earlier interviews are repeatedly replayed. That manic and zany repetition had me in tears from laughter.

But it also had me thinking about our society's relationship with celebrities.

Why do we care about Brangelina's baby? Or Britney Spears' virginity? Or Anna Nicole Smith's death?

Why can't we be content in only concerning ourselves with their art, rather than their emotionally dishonest artifice?

What: “The Passion of the Crawford”
Where: The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, 1501 14th St., NW, Washington, D.C.
When: Through Feb. 25
Tickets: $39 to $55
Information: 202-332-3300 or www.studiotheatre.org