by Richard Hinojosa · September 23, 2013
The New York drag ball scene of the 1980’s was not just a party scene for its participants it was home for them as well. It was a place of acceptance. It was also a place where “legendary” status could be achieved. The time and effort they put into their costumes and “walks” was epic. Some of the folks in this underground scene had no job, no money and no place to live but they still managed to look fabulous for the ball even if they had to beg, borrow and steal to do so. There were many “houses” (akin to European fashion houses such Chanel) represented at these balls. The subject of this production, Venus, was a member of the House Xtravaganza. Live IN Theatre invites you into their world in order to give you a little understanding of who Venus was and what it was like to live in this fringe society.
Born Thomas Pellagatti, Venus Xtravaganza was a transsexual who was murdered in 1988. Her case was never solved. That’s where you come in. You are going to try and solve the case. The play begins as a memorial for Venus. We are guided to the top floor of the Hartley House where they serve food (delicious empanadas the night I attended) and spiked punch. The mood feels artificially solemn with an overwhelming sense of celebration of a life rather than death. Once we all had our fill of empanadas, Sweets Xtravaganza (deftly performed by J’royce Walton) teaches us how to whip open a fan and use it to frame the face. Next, she leads us in a quick tutorial on walking. This is not your everyday walking down the street walking. No, this is a fierce runway walk that is more dancing than walking. “Voguing” (freezing and posing as if you were going to be on the cover of Vogue magazine) was invented at these balls. It’s all in the attitude. Finally the Mother of House Xtravaganza enters and she brings the mood (and the play) to a different place. Her friend is the Assistant District Attorney (played extremely well by Jason Vance) and he informs us that there is a clause that allows citizens to investigate a murder. We are then put into teams, given a map to follow and sent on our merry way into the city to “question” suspicion looking characters.
Over the next hour we wander the streets of Hell’s Kitchen encountering characters that we met at the venue. They offer up clues and evidence on the case as we frantically take notes and attempt to formulate a theory. The trick is to ask these characters the right questions. Some folks in my group were very good at the detective business. Others were there to have fun and laugh. I did a little of both. Finally, we all meet back at the venue and, in a controlled chaos, we all try and offer our theories on who murdered Venus.
I was really impressed with the actors’ focus as they chatted with us on the street. It takes a special sort of actor to be able to block out all of the noise and commotion of the city while trying to get vital information across to the participants and stay in character. They have set dialogue but half the time they have to improvise based on the questions we asked them or the action on the street. The actor playing a character named Mr. G (Jeff Foley) did an amazing job working with a man on the street who was not a part of the show but did his best to be a part of it. The man had clearly heard Foley say his piece to other groups because when asked if he knew about the murder he played along and said “Yeah, it was in the papers”. You just never know what you’re going to get and I think that’s what makes this experience so unique. The cast is vital to this production and they really step up and do some fantastic work. Some other noteworthy performances are Sri Gordon as Shade, Derek Jordan as Detective D’Antigua and Carlo D’Amore as the caterer.
D’Amore is also the creative director of Live IN Theatre and writer of the piece. His script is very cleverly set up. His dialogue is genuine and the clues he offers us are just vague enough to make us think that anyone could be the murderer. He states in his director’s note that he wants us come away with a better understanding of the drag ball culture of the 80’s and how it relates to LGBT culture today and to a small extent he succeeds. He took this story from the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. If you are looking to better understand this part of our society you need look no further than this documentary. It offers extraordinary insight into the life and passions of its subjects. If, however, you are looking for a fun adventure with a little sleuthing and little drag ball walking then you need look no further than this production.