Charles Busch Creates Sincere Drag
Why his new play Judith of Bethulia is more than just camp
There’s something Mickey-and-Judyish about Charles Busch’s stage comedies. Granted, the prolific playwright/performer is usually in drag and much of his humor is risqué. Yet all of his star vehicles—from the 1980s hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to last year’s long-running The Divine Sister—have a let’s-clear-the-barn-and-put-on-a-show quality. The cast members seem like giddy kids, and there’s palpable sincerity underneath their spot-on send-ups of old Hollywood clichés.
Without that sincerity, Busch’s shows would never work so well. While other drag performers go for easy gender-bender laughs, he wants the women he plays to be complex characters. “I’m a film and theatre historian, so I take parodies very seriously,” he says. “I want to achieve the same goals as the movies I’m evoking: a strong narrative with genuine feeling and tenderness. It’s not all done on a spoof level.”
That comes through in his latest play, Judith of Bethulia, which is loosely based on the biblical Book of Judith. Busch plays the title role, a rich Jewish widow who saves her people by seducing and slaying a villainous general. For the show, now running at Theater For the New City, he took inspiration from multiple sources: old, over-the-top Cecil B. DeMille epics; Mae West’s oeuvre; and a 1904 play called Judith that was the basis for D.W. Griffith’s 1914 film Judith of Bethulia. There’s also a slew of cultural references and a couple of stunning gowns. It’s funny, silly, and even kind of moving as the self-made Judith sheds her undeserved gold digger reputation and becomes a protofeminist heroine.
“It came out better than I expected!” Busch admits with a laugh. “It’s a wonderful thing to put on a play for the joy of it. I wrote it with no future agenda, no desire to transfer. I get different ideas all the time. I think, who would I like to be? Rosalind Russell in a nun movie? Barbara Stanwyck in a pre-code comedy? In this case, I wanted to do a kind of 19th-century melodrama, but somehow I ended up being more Mae West than Sarah Bernhardt.”
Busch wrote, cast, and mounted Judith in just a couple of months. With no advertising beyond his Facebook page, the show sold out before the first performance. “Maybe that’s the secret to success: don’t work so hard!” he chuckles. “Seriously, sometimes things can get overworked and over dramaturged. There’s something wonderful about the freedom of being spontaneous, keeping that childlike quality.”
Of course, keeping that quality, that sincerity, is pretty hard work, especially with such outrageous material. “When you do a comedy, it’s easy to start getting bigger and broader. Natural laughs become calcified and lose their humanity,” Busch says. “I remember years ago Zoe Caldwell, who I’d idolized since I was a teenager, came to see me in a show when I was way over the top. She came backstage and did this rather cruel impression of me and told me I was better than that. It got me thinking about investing my characters with a real honesty and not allowing an audience to seduce me into camping it up. It’s a fine tightrope walk.”
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo of Charles Busch (as Judith) by David Rodgers