New York

Ethyl Eichelberger

The Performing Garage

“Drag act” doesn’t begin to describe the transformations that Ethyl Eichelberger performs on the nominal subjects of his solo shows: Elizabeth I, Carlotta of Mexico, Clytemnestra, Catherine the Great, Nefertiti, Jocasta. Along with some other notorious historical personages—Lucrezia Borgia, King Leer [sic], Rip Van Winkle—and one homemade character, Minnie the Maid, they comprise a performance portrait gallery of singular purpose: they are outrageous vehicles for outlandish satire. These grand dames are presented as demonic divas, as a multi-character collective unconscious of borderline personalities careening over the line of all-out emotional excess. All are played in an Eichelbergian mishmash of theatrical styles, from vaudeville burlesque and garage-theater amateurism to 19th-century melodrama and after-hours camp. It’s as if the emotional histrionics of Sarah Bernhardt were directed with an overlay of Benoit Brechtian knowingness.

Each solo schtick follows a basic format: Eichelberger appears in extremely done-up costume—flamboyant tatty gown, elaborate wig, overdone makeup, gaudy junk jewelry—and, for some 20 word-filled minutes, spews a rapid-fire monologue about “her” life, a manic diatribe punctuated by comments to the audience, anachronistic asides, and run-on songs that Eichelberger belts out accompanying himself on accordion or piano. What the recent retrospective of this repertory made clear was his considerable subtleties of technique (not always what first comes to mind during a single Eichelberger performance, nor, in fact, always present in every show) and the conjuring up of something resembling genuine emotion within the camped-up clichés of these hysterical history lessons. After all, a diva’s final goal is to do anything to move you, and Eichelberger’s constant character is the diva playing other divas, a doubling up that yields a double dip of feeling.

The first triple-feature program of the six-night series was a textbook example of how to stir up real emotion in a classically melodramatic fashion. Looking like a caricature of Joan Rivers on a particularly wicked night, Eichelberger stepped onto the cardboard excuse for a stage set and announced that he would perform Robert Lowell’s 1961 translation—much abridged—of Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677). Perhaps it was the sotto voce invocatory song, the vernacular Lowell translation, or the relatively straightforward tone with which Eichelberger played out all the principal roles (Phaedra, Theseus, Hippolytus, and Oenone) in this drama of incest, suicide, and parricide, but the skit was a 15-minute gem of condensed tragedy. Even a Greek would have recognized its evocation of pathos.

As a mood-shifting entr’acte, Eichelberger presented a Super-8 film, Auntie Belle Emme, 1986, a hilarious, ultracompacted Gone With the Wind acted out by Eichelberger with a cutout photo of Clark Gable’s head. Incense smoke wafts around a fluttering Confederate flag to indicate the Civil War, and a doll funeral is held, after which “Auntie Emme” collapses from drink. Shot by photographer Peter Hujar and complete with a sprightly classical score, this short touches irreverently on every melodramatic silent-movie convention you can think of, but it is just too flat-out funny to have been only an academic exercise. Another performance tour de farce followed, Joeasta: Boy Crazy, or She Married Her Son, 1983, in which Eichelberger, as Jocasta, alternately addressed a ratty feather stole as “Tiresias” and held the thing in front of his face when speaking as the seer. Played more broadly for out-and-out laughs, this romp included a manic Sprechstimme about life in the East Village that bristled with sarcastic bon mots about, and sober descriptions of, the debilitating reality of the boho life. Like much highly artificial art, Eichelberger’s arch playlets exhibit a heartfelt romanticism between laughs.

John Howell