There’s virtually nothing a drag queen won’t say, or do, in public or private, say the Kinsey Sicks. The San Francisco-based beauty shop quartet that puts the show into show business, the bawdy into bodacious and the pique in political humor, returns to Theater J with its new and surprisingly sobering Things You Shouldn’t Say. And, yes, they talk about everything in their deliciously R-rated romp through the toughened political climate, but on the way they don’t forget their singing idols – Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Judy Garland, and Abba – in parody tributes that elicit chuckles and guffaws for their boldly blunt lyrics.
But this Kinsey Sicks visit is more than a mere entertainment. It’s also a historical artifact, sharing the story of the group’s invention a quarter of a century ago at a Bette Midler concert, where on a lark, a group of gay and lesbian friends decided to show up in drag. The rest, as they say, is history. And history is at the heart of this show – personal history, which tracks the rise of AIDS in the gay community in the 1980s, the growing awareness and reluctant acceptance of LGBTQ rights, and the ugly political gamesmanship that has made that struggle for acceptance even harder.
But, like the Kinsey’s popular Oy Vey in a Manger December Christmas/Chanukah holiday show and the pre-election Electile Dysfunction (both seen at Theater J), Things You Shouldn’t Say contains plenty of groaners, absurd exchanges, and a few opportunities to embarrass an unwitting audience member. But first, they introduce themselves in all their beehive haired, buxom (falsie) breasted glory. Winnie (Nathan Marken) is the studious one with glasses, a deep bass singing voice and a sense of proper Midwestern reserve – or at least as reserved as one can be, wearing layers of pancake, eyeliner, and helmet like hairdos. Jeff Manabat’s Trixie is the diva of the quartet, always ready to take a grand operatic bow in her yellow gold, hip hugging dress and glittery lips. Trampolina (Spencer Brown) plays dumb – a perfect Gracie Allen-esque foil for the jokes her cohorts toss her way, her rejoinders are often so simple and dumb that they’re smart. But she’s also more than a bit of a tramp and gains plenty of mileage on jokes about her openness. Finally, in a red polka dotted crinoline skirt and a Marlo Thomas “That Girl” flip hairdo crowned with an oversized bow, Rachel (Ben Schatz) has no filter, says anything. We are initially introduced to her crude humor when she pulls a banana out of her stars-and-stripes Jockeys and proceeds to eat most of the peeled fruit in one highly suggestive mouthful.
But the quartet isn’t beloved merely for its subversive beauty-and-the-beast looks. These gals can sing – lovely four-part harmonies and Broadway-style belts ranging from soprano to bass. And everything in between.
The show’s premise rests in its title, Things You Shouldn’t Say, which the ladies proceed to ponder in rejoinders about what not to say to a police officer, one’s parents, or in a job interview. Butt plugs, mom and dad? Or asking a cop if black lives really matter? And then there are the Trump and company jokes – fewer than expected, but who can complain about a song and dance number – with canes – called “Putin at the Ritz”? Or a question about how to spell alt-right and it’s truth telling answer: N-A-Z-I.
The Kinsey Sicks, particularly its chief writer Ben Schatz, are masters – err, mistresses – of song parody and that’s what drives their shows. In Andrews Sisters-like close harmonies, they opened with a tribute to the diva, Bette Midler, a lovely and increasingly funny rendition of “The Rose,” in which the audience was pointedly asked NOT to sing along. Then Rachel (Schatz) – barely breaking a sweat holds a note … and holds it … and holds it. These drag queens have serious voices. Celine Dion, watch your back.
Their bawdy humor and malapropisms aside, the Kinseys sparkle, shimmer and shine in numbers like their Abba parody “Gonorrhea,” about that “burning sensation” down below. Think “Mamma Mia” with an extra dose of urologist humor. They twist Connie Francis’s plea, “Where the Boys Are” is overturned into “Where the Goys Are,” after an unsuspecting audience member (the non-Jewish Jordan the night I attended) was dragged up on stage for comic effect. (When he announced his name was Jordan, Rachel provocatively asked, “Want to play in my West Bank?”) Then the ladies cribbed not only Tina Turner’s signature “Rolling on the River,” but also some of her choreography as they twisted it into “Trolling on the River.”
Surprisingly, Schatz hasn’t oversaturated the two act show with Trump take-down humor. The political jokes are there, about Steve Bannon and Kelly Anne Conway, the Russian connection, but they don’t overwhelm the piece. But there are also jokes about family, and even a mention of the local leather bar Eagles. Rather, the evening’s centerpiece is a sobering autobiographical monologue. Schatz as himself addresses the audience sharing the history of the Kinsey Sicks, its former and late founding members, as the only remaining founder. That story tracks the evolution of the AIDs crisis and the burgeoning LGBTQ civil rights movement. And, very much out of character, Schatz lets loose about the unrelenting bigotry and anti-gay politicians he encountered as an attorney for the first national AIDS legal program before serving the Clinton White House on the Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. He also recalled founding member Jerry Friedman who died in 2002 and for whom Schatz wrote the touching ballad “Jerry’s Song.”
But Schatz wasn’t finished, unleashing his anger particularly on “Republican politicians drumming up people’s fear and hate to use to win elections” claiming they made the Gay community into a joke and pariah in order to fill their anti-liberal coffers. He also boldly took a smack at the current trend to glamorize a gay best friend and same-sex marriage as hip, noting that the long struggle for recognition of LGBTQ rights arose during the AIDS crisis and the recent acceptance, particularly in popular media and culture, was gained in the wake of thousands and thousands who died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“Historical events,” he intoned, his voice rising, “change our lives and we’re watching it happen [now again] – that determines who lives and who dies.” Closing act one on this heavy note was a surprise, but Schatz’s lived history is vividly told and the impression memorable. “Don’t let the world forget …” he intoned.
While drag today seems like a lighthearted way to gain some laughs, the history of cross-dressing and drag on stage, has deep and serious roots. Drag allows the performer to say what is not acceptable, not allowed, and simply not very nice. The feminization of the male performer when dealing with hard or controversial topics is another way drag works to allow the discomfort of hard issues to go down easier, as everything seems more genteel and erudite coming from a lady in lipstick and heels.
“Things You Shouldn’t Say” allows Schatz and his Kinsey Sicks sisters to air the long and hard history of queer performers who don’t merely dress in drag to shock the world. Their work is far more focused – they’re up there in wigs and sequins singing funny songs to change it. The only thing missing? A raised fist and a picket sign that states: “Resist!”
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Kinsey Sicks in Things You Shouldn’t Say plays through July 30, 2017, at Theater J – in the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.