Letting Lypsinka be Lypsinka
John Epperson's 'The Passion of the Crawford' plays the Plush Room
by Richard Dodds
There is camp. There is drag. And there is Lypsinka. Even though John Epperson puts on the dress, wig, and makeup to portray his trademark creation Lypsinka, he says, "As for camp, I've had it with drag that has no intelligence or sensibility behind it."
In The Passion of the Crawford, he portrays Lypsinka portraying Joan Crawford. "The show is commenting on itself in a meta-theatrical sort of way," Epperson said recently from New York, in anticipation of his May 10-21 run at the Empire Plush Room.
"I see Joan Crawford as a metaphorical icon of the 20th century, along with Judy Garland, Elvis and Marilyn, meaning these people represent the best and the worst of the American Dream," Epperson said. "And I'm trying to present Crawford as more complicated and real than the usual drag-queen caricature, but Joan Crawford is never completely real. Layered on top of that, I'm doing one of the most unreal things possible, which is lip-syncing, so there are a lot of existential layers going on."
Before you start thinking of the show as an exercise in Lypsinka-goes-Camus, be assured that generating laughter is also a primary goal. How could it be otherwise in a show with a soundtrack that includes an actual recording of Crawford performing excerpts from The Desiderata, a bit of pop-hit spirituality that peaked in the 1960s?
But the majority of the hour-long show comes from an onstage interview Crawford did in 1973 that was later released as an LP. "She was a little bit tipsy and scared because there was no camera. She says twice in the interview that the idea of a Broadway show is a scary prospect for her. She turned down an offer to replace Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are Free, and although that may have been fun for the audience, it probably would be like seeing Julia Roberts on stage."
Epperson bought the Crawford recording when it was released in 1978, not long after he arrived in New York from small-town life in Mississippi. Two decades later, as Lypsinka, he recreated an excerpt as part of an onstage interview Christina Crawford gave while promoting the re-release of her book Mommie Dearest. That gave him the idea to perform the entire recording (with a few added attractions) as a new Lypsinka show. (He'll also be seen as part of the bonus material on a new DVD release of Mommie Dearest coming out this summer.)
The Passion of the Crawford marks an intentional break from previous Lypsinka shows that had her performing to a collage of mostly m
He's a little leery of the nightclub-vs.-theater setting for the show. "I don't want people distracted by the waiters and the items that are on their tables. If you look at your drink to pick it up to take a sip, you're going to miss a flick of an eye that gets a big laugh."
It has been nearly five years since Epperson, as Lypsinka, last played SF. That engagement at the Alcazar Theatre had the unfortunate timing to begin just days after Sept. 11, 2001. "That show failed because of that, I think, and because the Little Man in the Chronicle wasn't jumping up in his seat."
But 9/11 did have a motivating effect on Epperson. "In the late 90s, I realized that I sort of needed to reinvent myself and try a lot of different things. When the horrible event happened, I tried to use that, similar to the way I used the AIDS crisis, to put my nose to the grindstone and do all the things I wanted to do."
In addition to the change-of-pace Crawford show, Epperson also has a play that will be produced off-Broadway in the fall, in which neither he nor Lypsinka appears. Titled My Deah, it's a Southern gothic takeoff on Medea that has featured Patti Lupone and Betty Buckley in readings. "It's equally exhausting," he said of his new role as playwright. "I still find myself lying awake thinking about the show just as I do when I'm an actor."
Lypsinka in The Passion of the Crawford will run at the Empire Plush Room May 10-21. Tickets are $35-$40. Call (866) 468-3399 or go to www.empireplushroom.com.