14 August 2011

Lavinia Draper at the Ice Palace

“It’s like summer camp,” Lavinia Draper explained helpfully to her audience at Fire Island’s Ice Palace the other night. “You know how you would put on a show, and you’d think it was the best show in the world, but really it wasn’t?”

Badmouthing her own material is Lavinia’s stock in trade — witness her heated, ongoing war with whatever hapless fellow “from Patchogue” happens to be running the sound and lighting board. But for my part, I’m here to praise her work. Lavinia’s show is one of the freshest, smartest acts I’ve seen in a long time.

It takes balls for a woman to do cabaret on Fire Island, if I may phrase it so indelicately; the majority of the performers there are men in drag, while their audiences are among the world’s most discerning — and frequently drunk off their asses, too. Other acts on the Island range from the sublime (this summer including drag legends such as Porsche and Shequida) to the ridiculous (discretion prevents my naming them), whose routines serve primarily as an excuse to sit in the shade and order another drink.

Confronting these challenges, actress Susan Campanaro hit on a brilliant solution: her creation, Lavinia, is in temperament very nearly a drag queen herself — except that all her lady parts are her own. Moreover, she’s a fully realized persona, from whose character Susan never for an instant breaks.

Camp, in summer: Lavinia in action.
All photos courtesy of Susan Campanaro. Used with permission.

Lavinia is 55 years old (Susan a mere fraction of that age), and not so much a has-been as a never-gonna-be: her principal show-biz credit has been “stand-in for Betty Buckley” in everything from Cats on Broadway to Oz on HBO. The choice of Buckley is astute for a number of reasons: the Fire Island audience knows exactly who she is, but she’s not so much an icon that we expect or demand that Lavinia imitate her. And whereas a real-life Lavinia might dedicate an entire evening to anecdotes about Buckley, Susan’s Lavinia just sprinkles references here and there, as seasoning to a tasty mixture that needs no other chefs.

Wearing a bouffant silver wig that makes her look just a little bit like a bobble-head doll, Lavinia teeters onstage in too-high heels and a beach cover-up — which she soon removes to reveal the first of several layers of two-piece bathing suits that will be stripped off in the course of the act. In a voice that simultaneously recalls those of a little girl and a truck driver, Lavinia belts out an array of show tunes (particularly Liza Minnelli’s) and pop songs (such as the inescapable Lady Gaga’s*), interspersed with shtick — much of it improvised. Lavinia brings a couple of feather boas and — most importantly — a bottle of vodka and a martini glass, from which she takes frequent swigs (eventually forgoing the glass altogether and drinking straight from the bottle) as she gets progressively drunk.

But the “vodka” is really water, and Susan’s performance is carefully calibrated. Bemoaning the meager means of the Ice Palace stage, she explains at frequent intervals the dazzling effects (lighting, sound, smoke) she’d demand and get on Broadway: “Use your imaginations!” she commands us. As the “vodka” takes over and her frustrations mount, however, Lavinia is soon heaping abuses on the techie and many of the rest of us. Her dance numbers — not so much choreographed as counted-down — devolve, too, but she never fails to enlist good-looking audience members to pick her up and carry her around when she tires.

It’s a bawdy act at times, but it never goes too far: you could take your mother to see this show, if your mother is into this sort of material. Susan’s quick wit makes Lavinia the comic mistress of absolutely any situation. Ever on the alert for fresh faces, she leaves the stage, roams the room, and wanders onto the deck. She can’t be contained — and she shouldn’t be.

Whenever I see a young performer so gifted, I wonder where her next steps might lead her. I could easily see Lavinia Draper working the room in nightclubs in Vegas or Atlantic City (the casino ambiance would suit her, I think), or New York, with few if any adjustments.

But as for Susan Campanaro — if she can do all this, then the sky’s the limit. She’s one smart lady.

Lavinia Draper plays the Ice Palace, Cherry Grove, on Wednesday nights this summer.

“Restraining order or not, she just couldn’t stay away.”

*NOTE: Just before Gaga’s first album came out and the entire planet was irrevocably transformed by her resulting celebrity, she performed at the Ice Palace. Every gay man in the Tri-State Area claims to have attended — though it’s unclear how all 2 million of them managed to crowd around the pool at the Grove Hotel.

1 comment:

willsohonage said...

Dear William Madison,

Your opine on the prodigious comedic, improvisational, and musical talent that is Susan Campanaro are surely well reasoned and insightful. Her send-up of a send-up surely crosses so many lines of sexual stereo-type...that to concentrate on that line becomes nothing more then a blurred ambiguous amorphousness of head scratching. The by-product of which is hilarious in and of itself. She is a rolling comedic freight-train...that one watches as much as in anticipation of the potential wreck ahead as for the sure joy of it all. Her winking acerbic disdain for her techies...and her hardcore been there done that you ain't got nothing on me campiness is all the more amazing when you consider her audience. She plays on a virtual high-wire...as her gift of self parody and sarcasm is presented to those so well versed in these skills that in an others less deft hand it would be self-sacrifice.

I do agree typically pulling this off would take balls, big brass ones. Or...a real love for the audience the genre and people in general, and that I believe is the secret weapon in "Lavinia's" arsenal..."She love's us...she truly loves us...one and all."