Lypsinka's 'Passion': Deeper Than Drag

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

The fabulousness of Lypsinka has been established so definitively that it could be cited in case law. This alter ego of John Epperson is the glamorous vessel for the spirits (and recorded voices) of assorted movie dames from the era when real women -- voracious, larger-than-life sirens, drama queens and goddesses -- roamed the big screen.

She . . . he . . . they were last in town in 2004, with the gallery of gleefully savage vignettes of "As I Lay Lip-Synching." Lypsinka is back at Studio Theatre with a new show and a divine preoccupation with that star out of a female impersonator's dreams: Joan Crawford.

The hilariously titled "The Passion of the Crawford" is not exactly what you are expecting from Lypsinka, whose trademark is a marvelous gift for the gestures, expressions and mannerisms of the legends she portrays. (You never hear Lypsinka's own voice, of course; she lip-syncs it all, and with peerless technical verve.)

Oh, sure, Lypsinka sinks her teeth into Crawford the way a schnauzer goes for filet mignon. But if you come to "The Passion of the Crawford" expecting a full helping of high camp, the hour-long production might leave you undernourished. Do come -- but for something subtler. (Now there's a word you don't hear in discussions of drag very often.)

In a post-"Mommie Dearest" world, it would be way too easy -- and way too much of a cliche -- to devote an evening to "no-more-wire-hangers" kind of material. That joke has sailed. What Lypsinka seems to have in mind here is a lot riskier and a lot more interesting: an exploration of the image-conscious calculations of a quirky film star, and the gap between what she imagines she's conveying about herself and what we perceive about her.

The bulk of the production, solidly staged by Kevin Malony, re-creates a 1973 interview that John Springer conducted with Crawford at Town Hall in New York. (Steve Cuiffo, in horn-rimmed glasses and suitably cloying manner, is also on hand here, lip-syncing the role of interviewer.) The content is the sort of fawning show-biz drivel that often masquerades as an in-depth celebrity interview. What's fascinating in Epperson's portrayal is the sense of the tightly controlled performance that Crawford is giving, her efforts to milk every moment for grandiose effect, to turn the interview into a worship service, in which she's the holy figure.

How scheming can a person be? Crawford was from an age when a movie studio's publicity machine could practically create a star's persona from scratch, and it's that belief that you are what you manufacture that seems to ooze from every pore. It's funny, for instance, to hear her go over her guidelines for a star's behavior at the Academy Awards (this, in response to what she sees as Marlon Brando's appalling stunt, dispatching Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar). You see, too, why Lypsinka's show has a title with religious overtones: Crawford issues rules for celebrity comportment with such sanctimony, you'd think they were commandments.

Lypsinka's scarlet-painted lips quiver on cue, too: It's tantalizingly unclear whether the extravagant expression is a reaction to the (canned) applause, or a ruse for squeezing out every ounce of demonstrable love she can from her fans.

We giggle mischievously when "The Passion" shifts to an earlier interview, at her California home, with her young children, Christina and Christopher, who are almost as skillful as their mother at projecting some twisted idea of reality. The tone shifts again -- toward the surreal -- when we see Lypsinka at a rostrum, delivering what sounds like a sermon on the subject of children.

The hypocrisy is on display now, based on what we know from Christina's illuminating memoir. Even more strongly, you sense the strenuousness of the plastic effort to have us believe in this silly movie person as someone inspirational, or even worth listening to.

The lulls in this production have to do with the amount of time we linger in each of Crawford's exercises in self-infatuation. The clever, fast-paced film montage that opens the show is in an odd way misleading, because the rhythms of the rest of "The Passion" never again approximate that level of energy.

Still, satisfaction abounds just in observing Lypsinka at work. She wears an eye-popping dress by Ramona Ponce that you might call Cleopatra kitsch: a neck that is oodles of ruby-colored jewels, to match the earrings. In the tiniest gestures -- a mere looking askew at Cuiffo, for instance -- she offers up volumes of commentary.

The performance ends with one of Lypsinka's signature shticks, a choir of ringing phones that she answers with a recorded line from one Crawford movie or another. It's a reminder of how soapy and pulpy most of her films were. And why she's such an exquisitely bizarre choice for veneration.

The Passion of the Crawford, by John Epperson. Directed by Kevin Malony. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Catherine Eliot; projections, Grady Hendrix; sound, Gil Thompson; costumes, Ramona Ponce. About 1 hour. Through Feb. 25 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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