BY DAVID NOH | It’s incredible, but Lypsinka, that whirling dervish of illusion and the highest imaginable camp — whom I consider as essential a New York figure as the Statue of Liberty — hasn’t been on a local stage in nine years.
This has been happily remedied with “Lypsinka! The Trilogy,” running through January 3 at the Connelly Theater (220 E. Fourth St.; lypsinka.com). It consists of three separate show revivals: “Lypsinka! The Boxed Set,” in which she plies the kaleidoscopic, scrupulously curated sound bytes that made her a star; “The Passion of the Crawford,” in which she hypnotically recreates the one and only Joan; and the autobiographical “John Epperson: Show Trash,” in which she appears, speaks, and sings as himself.
I sat down to chat with this formidable, indestructible star at one of his favorite Chelsea haunts, Le Zie, and just had to ask him the most important of questions: Who was his favorite star — Dolores Gray, whose fabulously bombastic gestures and surreally exotic look surely inspired Lypsinka, or the ever-enduring Crawford?
“I don’t have a favorite star,” Epperson said, “but Crawford remains fascinating to me. As she got older, I see her as a sad figure, not because of Christina and the wire hangers, but just the stuff she put herself through to survive in Hollywood. There’s something kind of tragic and vulnerable about her which I see in her eyes the more I watch her. She keeps evolving.”
I remember going to the original production of “The Passion,” and a drunken old bear of a queen was sitting in front of me, slugging straight liquor from a big paper cup and cackling hysterically at everything. When he turned around, it was Stephen Sondheim. I asked him if he’d ever met Crawford and he replied tersely, “No. Never met her. Nope!”
John and I both know, however, that the song “I’m Still Here” was inspired by her, and Epperson said, “I’m hoping he will come because it’s altered over the years and become deeper and richer. He is a movie fan and really is crazy about Joan Crawford. I emailed him not too long to say I finally saw [her 1928 film] ‘Our Dancing Daughters,’ and he replied, ‘What have you been doing your whole life?,’ because to him, that’s something I should have seen a long time ago.
“I had the idea to do all of this 10 years but had to wait on the money. For this, we have to thank a man named Gerry Herman, not the composer, but an American man I met in 2010 in Paris, at the Café de Flore. I was there with a former assistant of Karl Lagerfeld’s, Gilles Dufour. He and Karl are on the outs, so I was afraid that Karl would be there, too, but he said, ‘Darling, I don’t care.’ I met Gerry there, and we were chatting and he said, ‘Wait a second, you’re Lypsinka. Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I would love to perform here and have come here to meet people.’ He said, ‘I’m going to get behind you,’ and he has, my very first real angel.”
I asked Epperson how he came to create Lypsinka and he said, “I had two older sisters, and the older of them was so imaginative and would think up things for her younger siblings. We had a recording with Jayne Mansfield on the cover in a black cat suit on all fours, even though she didn’t sing on the record. It was pop 1950s songs like ‘Sweet Old Fashioned Girl’ and ‘You Gotta Have Heart,’ and my oldest sister started moving her mouth to the record and my mother loved it. She called it pantomime and would be our audience.
“When I got to college in Jackson, Mississippi, I went to the gay bars and the drag queens were lip-synching, doing what I saw my sisters do. That’s when I started getting the germ of an idea, and I also saw a review of Charles Ludlam’s ‘Camille.’ I thought, ‘Wait a second. He’s in drag and in Time magazine, and that’s the difference: you have to be in New York.
“I came here in 1978 and one of the first things I saw that weekend was Divine in ‘The Neon Woman’ at Hurrah. Then I saw Ludlam’s ‘Camille’ and thought, ‘How can I make my mark, unique but rooted in some sort of gay performance tradition?’ I needed to come up with a name that tells the audience I have a sense of humor. I saw the Richard Avedon show at the Metropolitan and there were photos of Veruschka, Dovima, one-name fashion models. Well, I’m tall and skinny, too, so what if I am this one-name fashion model Lypsinka, who has a sense of humor about herself and tells the audience what they’re gonna see?
“There was also a deeper psychological reason, which was that I had the desire to be on stage, but was also filled with fear of exposing myself. So, if I could hide behind someone else’s voice. And that has been the conundrum of my career, because a lot of people think I can’t do anything but lip-synch.”
I saw New York City Opera’s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” in which Epperson stole the show with his aristocratic, nigh-Restoration comedy elegance: “I spoke in my own voice and sang the songs and thought surely someone will take me seriously as an actor and say how we can use the name Lypsinka to market another show, without being the Lyp. I thought, ‘I’m going to get offers and I didn’t.’ That was in 2004, a big year, with the movie ‘Kinsey,’ in which I appeared, playing across the street from Lincoln Center, eight pages in Paris Vogue, but nothing happened.
“Fortunately, being onstage doesn’t totally feed my identity. I’m very happy being an audience member but now I don’t go to theater because the audiences are so awful. I’m an audience at home, I watch movies and just saw ‘I Can Get It for You Wholesale,’ so there are Susan Hayward movies I have never seen. I’m perfectly happy, reading books and going on my Vermont trips every summer. I have a whole network of friends there. It’s so quiet, no tourists bombarding you and pushing strollers. The air is fresh and when I first went there, my friend said, ‘Here in Vermont, there’s valium in the air,’ because everyone was so relaxed. It’s only on the surface though. There are lots of angry poor people there, also.”
No less formidable a diva than the Lyp is the ever fascinating Imelda Marcos, and, to add to her living legend status, along with the Public Theater’s ragingly successful “Here Lies Love,” here comes actor/ writer/ activist Carlos Celdran, a real Renaissance guy, with his show, “Livin’ La Vida Imelda,” at the Clurman Theatre (through Nov. 23, 410 W. 42nd St.; ma-yitheatre.org).
“There truly is so much more to this woman than those infernal shoes,” I said to Celdran, and asked him what inspired him to do this show. He said, “The architect of Imelda, Leandro Locsin, was my original inspiration. Amazing man. Brilliant work and very ambitious. Back in 1999, I used to give a walking tour of his buildings that Imelda commissioned. After doing that architectural walking tour for a few years, I realized that there was a character here that I wasn’t addressing. The elephant in the room to speak. So as the years went on, Imelda somehow became the new focus of the tour and his buildings became the backdrop to her story.
“I just want to convey Imelda as more complex. I am not forgiving her for her sins nor am I condemning her. I just want to present a different side to her. Imelda’s identity is quite ingrained in the Philippine identity, as well. Must we allow the world to see her as a caricature, along with it somehow being okay to make a caricature of Filipinos as a people, as well? If the French can turn Marie Antoinette into a complex character to be understood, then why can’t we do the same with Imelda. She really is more than just about the shoes.”
I jokingly asked Celdran if, like almost every Filipino I know, he can sing, and, more seriously, if he could describe any particular traits identifiable with his people.
“Yes, I work in theater so I do sing,” he said with a laugh. “Imelda probably sings better than I, though. Identifiable Filipino traits? Jeez. Well, like a stereotypical Filipino, I like my adobo and white rice at any time of day. But Filipinos also have a flair for the dramatic and melodramatic and do tend to laugh in the face of adversity. It’s a coping mechanism I share with my countrymen. Being Filipino has been impactful. Some people don’t think we’re Asian at all. We’re like wandering Mexicans who ended up next to Hong Kong. But having said that, being Asian rocks.”
Celdran attended the Rhode Island School of Design and described that as “an amazing time. The late ‘90s was a perfect moment to be in art school and living in the East Village of New York City. It was intense. The music, the art, the burgeoning LBGT movement, the drugs. I’m lucky and quite grateful to have been part of that and lucky and quite grateful to have come out of it alive [laughs]. As far as artistic influences go, I would cite my American canon: Robert Wilson, John Leguizamo, Bob Fosse. My Philippine canon: Santiago Bose, BenCab, and Sipat Lawin Ensemble. I’m constantly inspired by what they do.
In September 2010, Celdran staged a demonstration against the Catholic Church’s role as the enforcer of social conservatism in Philippine politics. Dressed as the 19th century revolutionary Filipino writer José Rizal, Celdran entered Manila Cathedral during a Mass with the city’s mayor and various archbishops, bearing a sign protesting church-sanctioned abuses of power, and shouted, “Stop getting involved in politics!” before being dragged away by the police. He was charged and found guilty of offending religious feelings, which drew the attention of Human Rights Watch as well as thousands of Facebook supporters.
“I was a little naive in thinking that the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines would let me go with just a slap on the wrist,” Celdran said. “But I did the protest in order to push legislation that was pending in Congress called the Reproductive Health Bill. A very important bill which would provide birth control options to the poorest of Filipinos plus strengthening sex education courses in public schools. This bill had been blocked by the Catholic Church for 16 years. Finally one day, I decided to do something about it. I’m glad I wore a derby [Rizal’s trademark] that day.
“Silence is still leading to death in the Philippines. The Philippines’ HIV infection rate is increasing at an alarming rate and reversing the trend in a region where infection rates were going down. Lack of funding, lack of concern, lack of legislation are the primary reasons why this is happening. I would love to give a shout out to Jonas Bagas [tlfshare.org] and Laurindo Garcia [b-change.org] for being leading lights in the Philippine HIV fight. I am just a mere clown next to these guys.”
But Celdran himself is a true activist, and he ran afoul of the Dubai authorities, as well, when he was invited to perform “Living La Vida Imelda” for Art Dubai 2012. He was interrupted in mid-performance because of an imaginary conversation he had written between Imelda and Muammar Gaddafi, in which she says, “Islam is all about peace, and if you are funding a war in my country that is pitting Filipino against Filipino, you are also pitting Muslim against Muslim. How are you following Mohammed?” Afterwards, he was questioned by security officials and instructed to censor his show. Rather than do that, he cancelled performances.
He told me, “As for Dubai, the whole region is just mired in hypocrisy, bigotry, and misogyny. I have no desire to return to the UAE at all. It still baffles me why institutions like Georgetown and NYU choose to open schools in this region and seemingly validate their system and their way of thinking. Russia makes a new anti-gay law and the whole world freaks out. UAE has had an anti-gay law forever and the world lines up to throw money at them. I don’t get it.”
As far as his sexual orientation goes, Celdran said, “I guess queer would be the best way to describe me. I’m a gay man happily married to a woman for the last 15 years. So I guess that makes me part lesbian too. I’m actually not the first of its kind. I doubt I’ll be the last.”