Steve and Joey, a couple from Philadelphia who have been married for seven years, are sitting in the front row of drag queen Varla Jean Merman’s show. They’re a young couple, cute and sun-kissed from their P’town vacation. They’re not sitting next to one another though — their friend Michael sits between them, as if he were a parent separating his squabbling toddlers.
That is Varla’s read on this seating decision. Not sitting next to one another? Must be a sign of trouble.
Varla, big and busty in an even bigger wig and even bustier dress, leans over the stage and asks Steve and Joey about their relationship — how did they meet, where did they get married, what’s the sex like? She considers their answers, swishing around the information like a sommelier tasting wine. From what Varla can surmise, Steve and Joey actually have a nice relationship.
“But you’ll probably be divorced in three years anyway,” she concludes and then struts away from them, cackling.
This is typical Varla. She’s a pessimist and she’s proud of it. She’s a worrier, a complainer. She has bad hips, an assistant who never seems to do anything right, a fear of fireworks, spiders, clowns, and venereal disease (this last one, considering all she tells us about her many trysts, is probably justified). Varla’s beauty and youth have faded and yet here she is turning the same tricks (though her high kicks are no longer as high, what with the bad hips and all).
Varla’s 2022 show “Ready to Blow” finds its main narrative and thematic thrust in a 24-hour-long panic attack she had last year. “Obviously, I blamed it on my husband,” she tells the audience. But during the show, she uses an impressive array of contemporary political and cultural references to link her personal sense of panic to the environment we all live in right now, one that’s baked thick with anxiety. The costuming and backdrop for the first half of the show is a fiery, cautionary shade of red.
Loud and proud as Varla is on stage about the subjects of depression and anxiety, she skewers the way the entertainment industry handles these subjects. Varla calls the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That, which premiered on HBO Max earlier this year, “a nice way to fall asleep.”
At the beginning of the new show, Miranda, who was once a type-A caustic feminist with a high-powered career and shock of red hair, is a gray-haired, jobless woman with an oversexed 16-year-old son, a lame husband, and a drinking problem. But then Miranda has a steamy affair with a gender-nonbinary lesbian and, it seems, is cured.
Varla isn’t buying a clichéd solution to such a serious problem: “Lick a kooch, ditch the hooch,” she parodies. “Vaginas apparently cure alcoholism,” she says, and then, taking a sip from her 44-ounce martini glass, “So, I guess I’ll never be cured.”
The point, however drawn out, is well made. If the arbiters of culture today are willing to discuss the existence of mental health difficulties, why do they gloss over just how difficult those difficulties are? Why bring up something true and painful just to put a pretty wash over it?
Aside from the many costume changes, there’s nothing pretty here. Onstage, Varla screams at her assistant, who comes scurrying whenever she calls, tells us she’s going to do a tap number only to do two steps and then declare, “I’m absolutely winded,” cackles at her own jokes, occasionally coughs up a loogie or two, and — you’ll just have to see it to believe it — plays a harmonica with her crotch.
Live performance isn’t so much about the individual as it is about collective energy, the audience and the performer feeding off one another, and Varla’s use of that energy sets her art apart. She invites her audience to be part of the show: there are sing-alongs, calls-and-responses, and rhetorical questions. Varla’s answer to just about everything is “Yes, honey!” Varla’s “I” so easily slips into a “we” that she lends a kind of grammar to the idea that no one’s problems are theirs alone.
At one point, Varla refers to the show as “group therapy.” And as Varla sees it, therapy is less about getting rid of your problems and more about getting to know them. If you’re going to face your fear of spiders or fireworks or clowns or even your fear of fear itself, wouldn’t you like Varla to join you?
The event: Varla Jean Merman’s “Ready to Blow”
The time: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 p.m.
The place: Crown & Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: $40, tickets at onlyatthecrown.com