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Sunday, October 24, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gender Bending -- Entertainment With A Twist Has Pushed Cross- Dressing Out Of The Closet. But There's More To `Drag' Than Meets The Eye.

Clothes make the man, goes the old saying.

Yet surveying popular entertainment today, one might well ask: What kind of clothes? What sort of man? And if donning skirts and high heels does one thing to a man, what does wearing sideburns, suspenders and a tuxedo do to a woman?

The dress code has changed radically in American pop culture recently, and along with it many of our long-held assumptions about what we mean when we say masculine and feminine, or even girlish and boyish.

In such movies as the dark horse 1992 hit "The Crying Game" and this year's "M. Butterfly," "Farewell, My Concubine," "Mr. Nanny," and the upcoming "Mrs. Doubtfire," the spotlight rests on "cross-dressing" characters played by male actors in the dresses, wigs and lipstick generally associated with women.

Meanwhile, in two other recent movies, female performers "pass" for men by wearing traditionally male garb - in "Orlando" Tilda Swinton sports the doublets and hose of Elizabethan England, and in "The Ballad of Little Jo" Suzy Amis roams the Montana range in a cowboy hat, boots and trousers.

The boom in gender-bending doesn't stop there. In pop music, the 7-foot male singer RuPaul vogued up a storm in glamour-girl duds for the video of his chart-busting song "Supermodel," becoming the first bona fide transvestite rock star.

In theater, the once-submerged cult of drag performance is roaring out of the closet, proliferating and diversifying. New York

has a retinue of new cross-dressing stage celebs: parodist writer-actor Charles Busch, mock singer Lypsinka (aka John Epperson), and the switcheroo musical troupe La Gran Scena Opera.

In Seattle, you can catch "Camille" with actor Burton Curtis as the fabled Parisian coquette in the Alice B. Theatre production. At the Velvet Elvis Lounge, there's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Musical!" with men camping it up in the already gargoyled Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movie roles. And new airings of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" (by Greek Active Theatre) and "The Tempest" (at Freehold Studio) will strategically jumble the sexes by casting men in women's parts and vice versa.

There's more coming: "Hasty Heart," Cheryl West's new play about a female impersonator at Seattle Repertory Theatre next spring; Alice B.'s upcoming "Walking the Dog," a piece about a woman who has a sex-change operation; and (perhaps inevitably) a cross-dressed version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" by Greek Active, just in time for the holidays.

We certainly have a phenomenon here - but one that's been centuries in the making, and is laced with mixed messages, ambiguous signals and contradictory intent. Like, say, the nature of cross-dressing itself.

Marjorie Garber, author of the keenly perceptive study "Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety" (Harper; $17.50), believes the trend has broad implications.

"We are in a period of high re-evaluation of gender and sexuality roles," reflects Garber, an English professor and director of the Center for Literary Cultural Studies at Harvard University. "This is a social moment when masculinity and femininity are very much under investigation, and these categories have become very fluid."

"Also," she continues, "the media is creating a new market for all this. There are lots of articles about its importance, and you can turn on daytime TV and see on `Oprah' and `Phil Donahue' transvestites talking very eloquently about what they do."

A colorful history

As Garber and others have documented, gender masquerade in religious ritual and organized drama has a history nearly as old as civilization. In the cultures of Europe and Asia, women were long banished from the stage for social and religious reasons, yet represented dramatically.

That meant male actors in ancient Rome and Greece got to play Medea and Antigone as well as Jason and Creon. Even the Roman emperor Nero had his turn, hamming it up as an incestuous sister in the mime-drama, "Macaris and Canace."

In Shakespeare's day, Lady Macbeth, Juliet and Cleopatra were first essayed by adolescent males. Though this practice kept women safely away from the "impure" stage, it didn't mollify the Puritans.

Notes Garber, "When beautiful young boys played those women's roles to the delight of audiences, Puritan polemicists wrote diatribes about how corrupting that was. It's not surprising to find two reactions to cross-dressing co-existing in the same society: the increased sense of enjoyment, creativity and pleasure of the practice, alongside the anger and paranoia about it."

In some venerated Asian theater genres - the kabuki of Japan, Chinese opera - the casting of men in important women's roles continues to this day. (That tradition is a vital plot element of "M. Butterfly.")

Appeal is widening

Performance transvestism has not been excluded from the American Zeitgeist either. Male minstrel troupes did it, as did vaudevillians. We've seen "Uncle Miltie" Berle's outrageous dress-up routine on TV, a spangly male chorus line in the Broadway musical, "La Cage Aux Folles," Tom Hanks in falsies on TV's "Bosom Buddies," Michael Jackson's heavy mascara and Madonna's top hat and tails.

What's news today is the abundance and variety of drag, and the frankness with which it addresses contemporary issues of sexual identity. For instance, the campy impersonation of female movie stars that used to attract mostly a gay following still exists, but with wider appeal and a different emphasis.

Charles Busch's spoofy "The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" lasted more than 2,000 performances in New York, making it the longest-running nonmusical in off Broadway annals.

Busch, who chronicles his adventures as the "leading lady" in "Vampire Lesbians" in his new novel, "Whores of Lost Atlantis" (Hyperion; $21.95), calls himself the "grande dame of parody actresses." But even though he has adopted the style of '40s film and theater icons such as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Katherine Cornell, Busch sees a difference between his work and some earlier gay drag.

"There was a lot of drag that had an ugly edge to it" in the misogynist way it portrayed women, Busch says. "What people seem to like about me is that there's no anger in my act at all. One critic says that I'm not being womanly, I'm being actressy. I'm doing an homage, not a put-down." Putting on a new face

As director of the cross-dressing theater group Greek Active, and in his impromptu public performances as the statuesque female Helvetica Bold (named for a typeface), Seattle journalist Dan Savage says he's helping to create another kind of gay drag aesthetic.

"Camp drag is growing up," said Savage. "It's no longer this old sexist, misogynist form full of obscure Hollywood references. As the gay community has matured and come out to the mainstream, drag has become more about what it is to be male rather than what it means to be female. You can explore that without denigrating women."

Savage's strategy is to drop the fascination with old Hollywood glam queens, and rethink the classics. "We took `The Importance of Being Earnest,' a 100-year-old play by a homosexual writer about heterosexual characters, and looked at it through the prism of postmodern, post-ACT UP, postsexist, postgay liberation culture. Men played the female roles, but they didn't wear falsies or try to pass themselves off as real women. That wasn't the point."

Creating a convincing sexual charade seems to be less and less the point when men dress up onstage as women. Jillian Armenante, director of Alice B. Theater's "Camille," says of the actor playing the title role: "I wanted people to forget about Burton's gender. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if he's a man or a woman. What matters is his humanity."

But on film, the mask of otherness is used more often to deceive. Much of the impact of "The Crying Game" hinged on mistaking the gender of Jaye Davidson's character. In "The Ballad of Little Jo" the convincing male masquerade by Amis was framed as an act of survival in a sexist society. And when Swinton's Orlando makes a gender leap in midstream, it suggests just how arbitrary and mutable a sexual persona can be.

The question arises as to whether the mass interest in gender-bender drama will endure, or evaporate as so many other cultural trends have.

"The current fascination will of course abate," suggests Savage. "But drag is assuming a pride of place that can't be undone. Drag is too much a part of the gay community to go away. And as gays become more welcomed into American mainstream culture, drag will come along with us."

`All clothing is costume'

Garber also sees drag in political terms, but from a slightly different slant.

"I don't think this sort of expression is trivial, but the mark of a new stage we're reaching," she insists. "Drag demonstrates that all clothing is costume. It enables fantasies, it prevents certain things. It's a mode of both permission and constraint for all of us, however we dress. And we have a lot to learn about it."

More gender-bender dramas

-- "Hasty Heart," Cheryl West's new play about a female impersonator's relationship with a single mother and her child is presented at Seattle Repertory Theatre in April.

-- At Alice B. Theatre: "The Dish" stars British drag artist Bette Bourne (in January) and "Walking the Dead," by Keith Curren, which concerns a woman who becomes a transsexualized man (March).

-- Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy," the Broadway comedy that looks at the romantic life of a gay nightclub entertainer, will be produced by Center Stage on Mercer Island (April).

-- The musical version of "Peter Pan" at Seattle Civic Light Opera this November features a woman in the lead role; the Intiman version of J.M. Barrie's drama has a boy Peter.

-- A cross-dressed "A Christmas Carol" at Greek Active is planned for the holidays.

Cross-dressing movie classics

All but "I Was a Male War Bride" are available on video.

"Blonde Venus" (1932), starring the inimitable Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails.

"I Was a Male War Bride" (1949), with Cary Grant impersonating a female.

"Paris is Burning" (1991), a documentary about the spectacular Harlem drag balls.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), the campy cult classic still playing at midnight shows, makes its television debut tomorrow. (For more on `Rocky Horror,' see today's Pacific magazine.)

"Some Like It Hot" (1959), with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag.

"Sylvia Scarlett" (1935), with Katharine Hepburn suited up as a boy.

"Tootsie" (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman as a soap opera heroine.

"Victor/Victoria" (1982), with Julie Andrews as a "male" cabaret performer.

"The World According to Garp" (1982), co-stars John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual ex-football player.

"The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983), features Linda Hunt as male photographer Billy Kwan.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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