It all took place within Club Proteus's Greek-ruin decor, accessorized by candles, white tablecloths, a plush red curtain through which the entertainers emerged, and waiters in the rather incongruous sports-bar-ish attire of khaki pants and green polo shirts.
Even more incongruous were the various elements of the audience. Seasoned drag-show attendees--gay-bar regulars--came prepared with seemingly endless supplies of dollar bills to deposit, with plenty of theatrics, in the deep bosoms of performers they particularly liked. A group of genuine women had gathered under a floating Mylar balloon for the bachelorette party of a very pregnant bride-to-be. Along the front row were two tony hetero couples. ("Your second husband?" a drag queen asked one of the wives. "This time you went for the money, huh?") Along the bar sat a quiet, unobtrusive husband and wife--she in slacks and a sweater, he in a sequined dress ensemble, fake eyelashes and a blond wig. In front of us were a GQ guy and his two dates--both wearing tight, sleeveless black dresses--who celebrated somebody's birthday with a bottle of champagne that arrived toward the end of the night.
By that time, we'd all been victims of the exquisite torture dished out by "The Undisputed Bitch of the South," Charlie Brown, a visiting headliner from Atlanta. Looking and lip-syncing like a white Etta James and brandishing two sets of Edward Scissorhands fingernails, she had the nerve to deliver what must be the drag queen's ballsiest statement of self-confidence: She actually pressed an audience member's head into her faux bosom and gave it a lengthy shake.
Charlie Brown had a mouth like a sailor, and after joking in a molasses-y accent about being "reared" in Kentucky, she emceed the evening as a mission "to help you understand who and what the fuck I am." We were now in her living room, where "everyone is equal. We're going to leave the stress, politics and bullshit outside." From there, no audience member was spared. "Are you straight?" she asked one of the women in the bachelorette party. When the woman's bangs and ponytail bobbed in a yes, Charlie said, "You don't have a lot of gay friends, do you?" The woman said she did, but Charlie shot back with an obvious truth: "None of them are hairdressers, are they?"
The queens had plenty of both hair and dressing. Tara B. Tempest's wig resembled a standard poodle, and for one of her numbers, an extremely well-received version of Dolly Parton's "PMS Blues," the fringe on her dress was made of tampons. Alexandra Winters pulled off an uncanny Bette Midler. Reigning Miss Colorado USA Kiera Sexton, who favors tight latex outfits and performs strobe-lit, Flashdance-type routines with a gang-member/cheerleader attitude, astounded our table with her backflip. And Christina Lee Austin earned an encore with her performance of Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One"--even though Christina's platinum wig, leopard-skin mini-skirt and thigh-high patent-leather boots made her look more like a Playboy bunny than the torn-jeans-wearing lesbian rocker.
"The music that I do is not a personal thing, but you kind of have to feel it," says Christina, otherwise known as Christopher McPeek, who works as a waiter and bartender. "The Christina Lee Austin character--which is who I am--is the sassy girl, blond bombshell, and the songs kind of emulate that." McPeek admits straight audiences might be "um, a little shocked at first, but they really get into it and have a good time. It's quite a diverse cast, and a lot of them can't believe that some of us are boys."
The response to Guise and Dolls, according to Proteus general manager Tim Kirkland, has been "awesome." Every performance has sold out, and the club plans to run the Sunday shows at least through the end of the year.
Kirkland estimates that the crowd has been evenly split between gay and straight. The performances draw "a lot of birthday parties and office parties. We've had several girls who will bring their moms or their sisters. I don't know if that's because their boyfriends or husbands wouldn't come."
Kirkland knows there's a thin line between those who come to laugh with the performers and those who come to laugh at them. "We know some people, rather than seeing it as a comedic performance, will see it as a freak show, and we're prepared for that," he says. "When we put together this cast--there are some drag queens in town who take themselves extremely seriously, which would make them (a) impossible to direct, and (b) too sensitive to do the kind of show we do. If our guys can get up there and give a great performance and still, at the end of the show, say, 'Laugh at me if you will, because I'm a 35-year-old man in a dress,' those are the kinds of performers we want, because they make the best performers."