Taking out the trash
A live musical drag-queen sitcom pays loving tribute to camp classics.
In the back room at Beatnix, a clothing store and costume shop in Boystown, Velveeta Fitzgerald’s alter ego, actor Wes Perry, is fretting over shoes. He needs to pick out a pair for one of Velveeta’s multiple costumes in Glitter in the Gutter, a new live drag-queen sitcom premiering at the Annoyance Theatre January 21. Meanwhile, the show’s creator, Kellen Alexander, is reclining on an oversize leopard-print chair shaped like a high heel. It’s a shame there aren’t actual shoe versions of the chair. Velveeta would look fabulous in them.
Alexander, 24, is one of the driving forces behind 1, 2, 3, Fag!, a gay improv trio that performs at the iO Cabaret every Friday. Fast-paced and frenetic, the group’s fully improvised comedy night, which debuted last June, has won a loyal gay following and the adoration of hetero improvisers.
But Alexander also loves drag queens—his version of them, anyway. “Growing up in the Midwest surrounded by women with too much makeup and big hairdos, I’ve always had a love of larger-than-life women,” says the suburban Cleveland native.
When he finished taking improv classes at the Annoyance last year, Alexander submitted the idea of a cross-dressing sitcom-style musical for the theater’s weekly director’s showcase, Triple Feature. The 20-minute show, which played last year, featured San Diego native Perry, 22, who grew up a John Waters devotee (“I did drag once in high school,” he says. “I wanted to be the lion in The Wiz, but the teacher cast me as the Wicked Witch”), and 1, 2, 3, Fag! costar Seth Dodson, 27, a devotee of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The original short revolved around the ordinary lives of trash-talking, low-life drag queens Velveeta Fitzgerald and Pepper LaRoo, who are visited by a pizza boy, a rival drag queen and a potential love interest. “It was awesome and it was fabulous,” Alexander says. “People filled the theater.” Annoyance artistic director Mick Napier and executive producer Jennifer Estlin asked Alexander to turn the piece into a full-length show.
For the resulting one-hour play, Glitter in the Gutter, Alexander, Perry and Dodson based the story line on classic scenes from camp staples. Drag devotees will notice nods to Waters’s Female Trouble and docs Wigstock and Paris Is Burning. Alexander also had his actors improvise scenes in which Velveeta and Pepper play Monopoly and order a pizza, and a scene in which one of them is on her deathbed. “None of that was in the script,” Alexander says, “but it gave me an idea of who their characters were.”
Their mundane lives are essential to the plot. “When you think of drag queens, you don’t think about them just sitting at home hanging out, paying their bills, watching Netflix,” Perry says. “Showing them just doing daily things is a fabulous twist.”
The show further tweaks the traditional drag formula with a drag character played by a woman, Sarah Fineout. “A drag queen doesn’t necessarily have to be a man at this point,” Alexander says. “Growing up, I went to church with 25 drag queens, biological women who dressed outrageously. My favorite drag queen in the world might be Chantal Biya, the first lady of Cameroon.”
As in most camp classics, these girls are glamorous in their own minds only. “The drag queens in the play are poor,” Alexander says. “It’s a philosophy I love and try to live by, and that’s to make everything fabulous, and they do that. I like the adjective ‘trash fabulous.’”
Alexander has high hopes for the monthlong run at the Annoyance. “In my dream world, Glitter in the Gutter is a sitcom on HBO or Showtime where we can get away with whatever,” he says. “I picture Velveeta and Pepper getting a job at Burger King and making that fabulous.”
Glitter in the Gutter hits the Annoyance January 21.