Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Connie, artist


John Cantwell's wild performance art at Oasis

John Cantwell backstage, preparing to become "Connie." photo: Dusti Cunningham
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

While it's difficult to convey the sheer wildness of John Cantwell's performance art/drag act in Fade to Connie, I'll attempt it with excerpts form our hilarious phone interview. Cantwell's shows are paired with another part of this weekend's Los Angeles gay-vasion of nightclub Oasis. Nightclub producer Mario Diaz, a fellow performer and pal of Cantwell, has a screening of a documentary about him, with a Cantwell/Connie short show. And Cantwell's May 22 full show at Oasis is followed by Diaz's sexy nightclub event Big Fat Dick (featured in last week's B.A.R. )

The 47-year-old actor, whose film work includes a scene-stealing small part in Legally Blonde, and TV shows (Pushing Daisies, Will & Grace, Dharma & Greg), has been performing in various media for decades, including with the acclaimed gay sketch comedy group The Nellie Olesons.

Cantwell is one of many actors who've also created his own works. His autobiographical show Saltine Crackers premiered in LA in 2004.

For Fade to Connie, which Cantwell brings to Oasis, he culls dance, projected imagery, and performance (but not lip-synched) character sketches based on Brian DiPalma muse Nancy Allen, the film Flashdance, and other not-so-frequently parodied yet deserving female camp icons. Add The Eyes of Laura Mars, Jaws and even Apocalypse Now references into the mix, and it's a genre-defying pop culture explosion.

With accomplished gay film director Jim Fall (Trick) and choreographer Robin Carrigan shaping the work, plus video editor Zig Gron (The Matrix and The Bourne Trilogy) Cantwell's wild style even includes a tribute to his pet cat. Cantwell's Connie shows first premiered four years ago at Provincetown's Afterglow Festival and The Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Cantwell was raised in the town of Tallulah, Louisiana. "It's not named after the actress Tallulah Bankhead, but it was auspicious," he said.

As Connie, the actor is a blend of divas.

John Cantwell in Fade to Connie.
photo: Dusti Cunningham

"Connie is not just drag, but more of a misunderstood Anna Nicole Smith-Margo Kidder underdog who wants to be a superstar overnight," he explained.

For this fourth incarnation of Connie, Cantwell noted how the shows have evolved.

"For the first show I did, Love, Connie, it was all about my cat, Vickie. That's my real cat in the films. I also liked playing it up like a Brian DePalma film, with Connie being the girl in slasher films. Those are among my influences; pop culture mixed with horror. Fade to Connie is more of the '70s films."

John Cantwell as himself

While this was a highlight of his New York days, Cantwell had the impulse to visit Los Angeles for a show, and then move there in 1998, when New York life became too expensive. His trips north for shows in San Francisco were met with less acclaim than in LA.

"Our comedy was very un-PC, and not just about gay and AIDS issues," said Cantwell. "We included people with disabilities, racial issues, and even the Columbine shootings. We were making fun of talk shows that obsess about these topics, but SF was a harder political front."

Cantwell summarized New York audiences as a different sort of 'difficult.' "They demand that you prove how smart and funny you are. LA shows are more of a party, and I was drawn to that."

In LA, the actor enjoyed some success at first bat, including a few profitable commercial gigs, and the popular Legally Blonde.

"I got to do some really fun stuff," he said. "When you first come to LA, you're new and hot; fresh meat. It's super fun, but ultimately, you have to figure out something to do to sustain yourself."

In between some live theatre shows with the Nellie Olesons, Cantwell said Connie began to emerge in his mind.

John Cantwell in Fade to Connie.
photo: Dusti Cunningham

"I knew that I wanted to create a femme fatale character," he said. "I always identified with female characters. When I was four years old, I wanted to be that young girl in The Poseidon Adventure. I always wanted to be the blonde lead singer of the band. When I started creating my own stories, I also identified with Jackie Brown. I was kind of broke at the time, so I took a risk."

That risk became the acclaimed Connie Slocum shows, the latest of which he describes as "Nancy Allen, Jamie Lee, pop culture stuff, a sort of TMZ constant fame loop, and retro movies shown late at night on HBO."

Cantwell and I then diverged into an off-the-record reverie of our teenage endeavors to seek out campy and gay-subtextual –or overtly gay– films, TV shows, and books.

"Gay men my age in their late 40s were the first generation to get MTV and HBO," he explained. "We were able to figure things out. It was all discovery, not a simple Google search. That's what makes me nostalgic for that."

Cantwell recalled being scolded by his mom for staying up late to watch films like Friday the 13th and Cruising. "'You'd better cut that shit out!' she'd shout, but I needed to see that stuff."

John Cantwell in Fade to Connie.
photo: Dusti Cunningham

His teenage obsession has blossomed into his current series of shows, and Cantwell's eagerly anticipated return to San Francisco.

"I went to the first Trannyshack," recalled Cantwell. "After our first show, we were walking up and down the Castro in the rain. We made five dollars. We were basically homeless, like gypsies."

So, what does Cantwell, who's returning with a bit more fanfare, and housing, see his character Connie, in real life, bring to the Bay Area?

"I wanna see her open up a can of whoop-ass on someone!"

John Cantwell performs 'Fade to Connie' at Oasis, Friday May 22. $15. 8pm. 298 11th St. at Folsom. 795-3180.

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
Newsletter logo
twitter logo
facebook logo