In the summer season of Covid-19, there’s more drama playing out in the Capitol and White House than on the stages of the Outer Cape.
That role reversal is not welcome, not normal, and not healthy. It may seem as if the lack of community theater at indoor venues is a minor issue compared to 160,000 dead, careers dashed, and families struggling to survive, let alone countless Black Lives Matter demonstrations, impending environmental disaster, and the fight to save democracy in America from plutocrats and the stooge Trump.
But it’s not minor. Priorities aside, theater — and especially theater on a local level — is an important part of how we view ourselves, how we set our morality, how we confront our ills. And live theater, since March, has been absent.
David Drake, the artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, has been doing what he can to counteract that absence. The entire year’s season at the theater has been postponed, much as it has been at other Outer Cape theater companies and nationally, and Drake has been filling up dates with virtual events — Mosquito Story Slams, archived performances (such as The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me), talkbacks, and, now, the annual PAPA ceremony.
PAPA — the Provincetown American Playwright Award — is essentially a fund-raising event. It has been awarded twice since Drake launched it, to Terrence McNally in 2018 and Paula Vogel in 2019, and the choice of recipients is telling: both are significant artists and courageous voices of the LGBTQ community. In Provincetown, we need to honor heroes such as these. It does more than raise money for the theater. It honors our legitimacy.
This year, the PAPA ceremony, to be held on Saturday, Aug. 15, at 5:30 p.m., will be virtual at provincetowntheater.org. The public can live-stream it for free. Donations are voluntary and can be made online.
The honoree in 2020 is a curious and inspired choice: Charles Busch. He’s the playwright and actor whose career took off in 1984 with the off-Broadway smash Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which he wrote and starred in drag, and has continued with play after play for more than three decades, including a couple of movie adaptations (Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!) and a Broadway triumph, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.
Busch is unique. His comedic spirit is satirical without being political. His worldview is inspired by the femme fatales of old movies and plays and by low culture, even kitsch. It’s described as camp but is really a loving send-up. Indeed, the roles he has played in drag have sometimes been performed by women, with no loss of laughs or spirit.
His passion is silliness — puns and one-liners and sight gags — but also elegance and professionalism. There’s a tendency in drag to push limits and go to extremes of vulgarity and clownishness. Busch holds back. He’s a subtle drag queen, an oxymoron. Drag may be difficult to locate on the transgender spectrum these days, but Busch is decidedly a master.
He’s also very much a playwright and not just a performer. In that way, he follows Charles Ludlam, whose Mystery of Irma Vep premiered the same year as Vampire Lesbians. Busch channels the essence of Neil Simon as much as Joan Crawford — just look at Allergist’s Wife, which starred Linda Lavin and Michele Lee, sans Busch in drag. His plots are often ludicrously complex, satirizing mid-century mysteries and melodramas, but Busch has always been about craft and theatricality. In this, he reflects his friend John Epperson’s Lypsinka, who turns the scenes of Hollywood’s outsized heroines into a souped-up, hyper-edited spectacle.
Lavin, Lee, and Epperson are among the many luminaries who will be at the PAPA ceremony, including Julie Halston, Maxwell Caulfield, Ryan Landry, Taylor Mac, Jinkx Monsoon, and Tom Judson. The event is being hosted by designer Ken Fulk, and features a virtual tour of his meticulously restored Mary Heaton Vorse House, where the theater’s Paula Vogel Playwright Residency program will take place in 2021.
So, a toast to virtual PAPA, which is better than no PAPA at all. Charles Busch makes us proud. May the Provincetown Theater raise bundles and live on.