He’s the Bawdiest Cleopatra of the Century

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[article originally published at TDF Stages, March 30, 2016.]

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Last year, Charles Busch considered walking away from playwriting. Fortunately for fans of the writer, performer, director, and drag legend, the impulse didn’t stick. Just before the onset of rehearsals for Cleopatra, his latest creation, he says, “I was retired from the stage about a year ago, wasn’t I? I was being very melodramatic. I thought maybe I’d written enough plays, maybe close that chapter and just focus on other forms of career satisfaction.”

However, after the success of some intensely personal projects – a cabaret act called That Girl/That Boy and an evening for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series titled Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic – he was ready to lighten up again. Or as he wryly says, he wanted to avoid “all that needless rumination and going over every choice I’d made in my life.”

And so Cleopatra was born. A lascivious riff on the famous Egyptian queen, the play runs through April 17 at Theater for the New City, where Busch has been staging his work since 1982. He credits artistic director Chrystal Field for remaining his champion, which is why he keeps premiering his material at her theatre. “She gave me that opportunity, and every few years I return,” he says. “I just give her a call. She doesn’t ask me what the play is going to be. A couple of very generous friends give us the money to put it on in a very inexpensive way. It’s just fun.”

As he so often does, Busch grounds the fun in a deep knowledge of film and culture. Discussing the inspiration for the show, he says, “I started thinking about all the different actresses who’ve played Cleopatra. I wanted to tell the story in ninety minutes, so I used theClaudette Colbert 1934 DeMille version as a template, in which they tell her whole story in a very succinct pre-Code time. I wanted to start it off [with Cleopatra] meeting Caesar and then going through Antony and Cleopatra, to her death.”

Of course, the arc of the plot is just part of the appeal for Busch the creator and Busch the film historian. “Sarah Bernhardt is my inspiration for my whole life — being an actor-manager, creating my own persona,” he says. “Victorien Sardou wrote a version of Cleopatra for Bernhardt. It’s a wonderful take, with flowery speeches and phrases to use. I used the Sardou for a certain kind of grandeur of diction.”

Busch in contemplation. Image by Frederic Aranda.
Busch in contemplation. Image by Frederic Aranda.

Busch’s show doesn’t stop with purple prose, however: “It’s a bawdy play. I think it’s the raciest play I’ve ever written as far as all the dirty talk.”

The soundscape is sensual too, inspired by DeMille’s Cleopatra and other epic films. “The music under the barge scene is incredibly erotic in a way, with the pounding of the gongs and the drum,” Busch says, adding that the team worked with the period pianist Peter Mintun to adapt a Mae West song for a seduction scene.

Ladies like West also inform Busch’s performance in the title role. As he explains, “I’m playing Cleopatra as an amalgam of 1930s tough dames, part Jean Harlow and part Barbara Stanwyck.” And naturally, he is his own inspiration. “I’ve been writing for this specific leading lady, me, for forty years. When I write, it’s a very tight-fitting garment, you know. I take it in, take it out.”

These revelations point to Busch’s specific comedic tone. “There are so many different forms of theatrical parody,” he says. “My particular little province is where we don’t find comic fodder in the plot. We play the melodrama and each plot point seriously. It’s what goes around it where we have fun. I don’t burlesque a death scene.”

He continues, “My style has evolved. I’d say the writing and acting are so entwined when I do this kind of play. As an actor, I’ve really been on kind of a twenty-five-year course of simplifying my comic style. It’s just been a gradual thing of eliminating excess mugging and playing it for real. Going off on my comic tangents, but they’re always directly connected to the story. The story comes first. The story is always first.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 30, 2016)

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