Drag Machine makes history at The Jones

While we wait for Drag Machine, people start handing out freshly spun cotton candy to a line that snakes around the Jones Theatre. Inside, we find that the Drag Queen bathroom (there's one for Drag Kings, too) sports a glittering tinsel curtain; decorated top hats are taped to stalls for the taking. There's booze on sale throughout the evening — the bar initially set up on stage is later moved into the lobby — and during the performance, audience members pop up periodically, empty glasses in hand, weaving across the stage to the bar and sometimes dodging a singing Queen in full-out, full-throated performance.

The goal of Off-Center @ the Jones, part of the Denver Center Theatre Company, is to work with local talent, explore exciting new forms, and create lively and informal theater — and Drag Queen Time Machine is as much a party and celebration as it is a production. Shirley Delta Blow, aka actor Stuart Sanks, takes you on a trip through the decades of the twentieth century by twiddling with various fluffy objects and making vroom-vroom sounds while "If I Could Turn Back Time" plays. She is assisted by two adorable flight attendants — pretty little Ruby Bouche and lithe, smooth-skinned Go Go. Audience participation here isn't one of those get-picked-on-and-embarrassed-by-a-performer things; for those enticed onto the stage, it's more like making a kindly new friend who'll guide you through games like "Are You Smarter than a Drag Queen?" and "Who Dat in Drag?" while more new friends in the audience help by shouting out answers when you find yourself stumped. The production says that the term "drag" (dressed as girl) originates with the use of young boys to play women in Shakespeare's plays, and while I don't think this is true, it does lead to a pretty funny bit in which a thickly mustached audience member is rapidly adorned in a pink frock and tasked with reading the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Decade by decade, famous faces flash past on two screens — everyone from Grace Jones to Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Capone — accompanied by a few facts about each era. But amid the laughter and camp, there are some genuine tributes as Shirley Delta Blow applauds the heroes of the gay-rights movement and stresses the participation of drag queens within it. She tells us about the first stirrings of that movement with the formation of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s; so strong and destructive was homophobia in those days that Mattachine activists had to operate in secret, taking on the structure of a Communist cell. There are photographs from the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York's Greenwich Village: The police had gone there for a routine crackdown and were stunned when the patrons decided to fight back. Drag queens were among those hurling projectiles in the struggle, and some helped pull up a parking meter for use as a battering ram. Blow also describes the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group that began in 1979, gained prominence through the 1980s, and still works in many cities to help and educate gay youth and raise money to combat AIDS. (You can see the contribution of one group of sisters to Dan Savage's well-known It Gets Better Project at www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEB2Ab0qe-M.)


Drag Machine

Presented by Off-Center @ the Jones through November 16, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denveroffcenter.org.

The lip-synched performances are all enjoyable, and a few are out-and-out electrifying: Zoe O's impersonation of Judy Garland singing "Cabaret," Daniella DeCoteau declaring "I Will Survive." On the evening I attended, Daniella provided my favorite moment when she invited an audience member on stage to dance with her, and up he leapt, wiggly as a puppy, full of capering enthusiasm and improvising like crazy. She told him to follow her lead and he obediently fell in line, imitating her moves rather expertly. But after allowing him his spotlight for a few good-natured minutes, she tired of him. Swinging her hip, whooshing her hands, she simply swept him off the stage. It was a moment of pure drag-queen glory.

After a moving homage to the many young gay people who have taken their own lives, the show ends with some hopeful, rainbow-colored imagery for the future. And, really, how can it not be a good party when you learn your own drag queen name (Silver Fox Allure, in case you were wondering), get to eat cotton candy, and end up adding the shimmer of your glow stick to all the others waving gently in the dark?


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