Beauty, Inspiration and Danger: Charles Busch's Top 10 Drag Performers

Playbill Pride   Beauty, Inspiration and Danger: Charles Busch's Top 10 Drag Performers
 
As part of Playbill's 30 Days of Pride, writer and performer Charles Busch shares his selections for the top 10 drag performers.

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1. John Epperson – Lypsinka! The Boxed Set

A virtuoso performer, John reinvented the concept of lip-synching and transformed it into performance art. Glamorous, complex, hysterically funny and acutely intelligent, John makes you believe that the dozens of different female sound bites are the singular voice of his creation, Lypsinka. The Boxed Set is the perfect introduction to this great performer, and fortunately he'll be bringing it back to the Connelly Theatre Off-Broadway beginning July 22.

John Epperson
John Epperson

2. Charles Ludlam – Camille

I could fill up ten spaces with Ludlam performances. This transcendent playwright/actor/director and founder of the legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company has been my great influence. His plays and performances opened up a whole new world of possibilities to me when I was very young. His adaptation and performance in Camille was both wildly funny and profoundly touching. Ludlam on stage was a constant dichotomy of opposing qualities. Beautiful/grotesque. Dangerous/endearing. Silly/profound. 3. Charles Pierce

While he portrayed a great number of female Hollywood icons in his act, above all he was a brilliant comedian and personality. You came away from his performance enjoying his comic insights into Katharine Hepburn, Joan Collins, Tallulah Bankhead and others, but also loving the charismatic man that was always present behind the mask.

Charles Pierce
Charles Pierce

4. Mr. Lynne Carter

I caught what I believe was his last engagement in New York in the Seventies at the Grand Finale cabaret. Lynne Carter was a legendary female impersonator, who did spot-on and very funny impersonations of Bette Davis, Kay Thompson, Hermione Gingold and even Pearl Bailey. He did Bailey with a platinum blonde wig and no attempt at indicating visually her race and yet made you absolutely believe she was there on stage.

5. Andy Halliday – Times Square Angel

Andy Halliday was a member of my original company, Theatre-in-Limbo and created roles in all of my early plays. One of his finest roles was as the alcoholic ex-nightclub star Helen in my Christmas play Times Square Angel. Tottering on her high heels and clutching her purse full of her crumbling newspaper clippings, Andy's Helen was hysterically funny and surprisingly touching. He first played the role in 1991, and you can still see him playing Helen when we revive the play for one performance every Christmas season at Theatre for the New City.

6. Tony SheldonPriscilla Queen of the Desert

I flipped over Tony Sheldon's performance in this musical. He was absolutely real and very funny but never commented on the character. I totally believed that his character had once been a celebrated female impersonator. On top of everything, I was amazed that he had played the role five thousand times and kept it as fresh and spontaneous as if he had just opened in the show.

Tony Sheldon
Tony Sheldon Photo by Joan Marcus

7. Divine – The Neon Woman

Divine was a great cult film star who worked very well on the stage. I'll never forget his performance in this Tom Eyen play, which was performed in a disco near Lincoln Center. He managed to be sinister and yet oddly sympathetic. Despite his bizarre appearance, he could also surprisingly convey a feeling of glamour.

Divine
Divine

8. Jim Bailey as Judy Garland I saw the great female impersonator Jim Bailey do a full two-act evening as Judy Garland in San Francisco years ago. His attention to detail was phenomenal, from his every vocal nuance down to the elaborate body padding that created a perfect illusion. For those of us who never had the chance to experience an actual Garland performance, Jim Bailey more than gave us the gist. He is a true illusionist.

9. Randl Ask – Pageant

I thought I was going to sick from laughing when Randl Ask as Miss Bible Belt in the original Off-Broadway production of Pageant began speaking in "tongues." He was able to perfectly meld the outrageous with genuine insight and feeling and a characterization based on observation.

10. John Cameron Mitchell Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I remember years ago running into John on the street and him telling me he was working on a drag character of a German transsexual rock singer and trying out songs at a club called Squeezebox. I said "That sounds great." Inside, I was thinking, "You've got such a good acting career going on. Why are you wasting your time doing this?" When I finally saw the show at the Jane Street Theatre, like everyone else I was bowled over by his dynamic performance. I forgot that it was John up on the stage. Hedwig was a completely realized character who you absolutely believed existed in real life. This wasn't the first time I was wrong. I also inwardly rolled my eyes when a young architect told me his crazy idea to restore...the High Line!

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