To those apoplectic over the dire shortage these days of great ladies of the theater, I give you that one-dame cavalcade of hyperdramatic femininity, Lypsinka. Sweeping into our midst like some perfectly manicured amalgam of Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward and Loretta Young, she is both trailblazer and throwback, a merciless parodist who nonetheless manages to pay affectionate tribute to bygone images of womanhood on stage and screen.
That she's decided on another visit to Studio Theatre, this time in her glorious "Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching," a well-traveled show new to Washington, is reason to place garlands (and large ticket orders) at Studio's box office. For anyone familiar with her dizzy oeuvre, the production is a reaffirmation of Lypsinka's uproarious brand of performance art, a style that mixes hilarious insight with meticulous showmanship.
Newcomers get the added thrill of first exposure to a peculiar kind of genius, a talent for impersonation that goes beyond mimicry. The stock-in-trade of Lypsinka, aka John Epperson, is a performance in which the actor's own voice is never heard. The recordings to which Epperson lip-synchs for 80 nonstop minutes of unalloyed pleasure are patched together in a way that gives the production an almost orchestral cohesion.
It's much more than the novelty act it might have been. The vocal snippets that make up "As I Lay Lip-Synching" come from a variety of sources: Broadway musicals from the '40s through the '80s; B movies; recordings by Ethel Merman and Bette Davis; actress Barbara Feldon (of "Get Smart!" fame) reading from an antiquated etiquette manual, describing what the well-dressed woman keeps in her closet. On Sunday, Epperson unveils a new piece at Studio, "Show Trash," in which he appears as a man.
On Giorgos Tsappas's simple set of sliding panels, lighted in an endlessly changing array of beguiling candy colors by Mark T. Simpson, Lypsinka flits with amazing dexterity from one taped moment to the next. Trouper that she is, she never misses a cue, not even when, in a cleverly constructed montage, she picks up a succession of imaginary telephone receivers and mouths a series of breathless one-liners. The moments might seem as if they were assembled for maximum campy appeal, but "As I Lay Lip-Synching" goes to the trouble of having something more to say. The movie and stage stars Lypsinka conjures up -- coiffed and dressed and made up with neurotic refinement -- almost always manifest a tension between outward perfection and inner turmoil. In the words of an acerbic Sondheim lyric, these women are "keeping control while falling apart."
No human sound is quite as baroquely unfettered -- or unintentionally funny -- as that of a woman's elongated, high-pitched shriek in an old horror movie. Out of the mouth of a man playing a woman, it's somehow even funnier. The screams provide a kind of anthem for "As I Lay Lip-Synching"; another motif is the staccato violin screeches from "Psycho," played as an accompaniment for Lypsinka's character transitions.
This, the music of derangement, punctures the sense of order that Lypsinka's film and stage characters seek to convey. In the world according to Lypsinka, bedlam is a place where everyone maintains perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Which is why the archetypal Lypsinka star is Joan Crawford (or maybe Faye Dunaway). And the quintessential film is, naturally, "Mommie Dearest."
Lypsinka is no ravishing beauty, but she is beautiful or, rather, is put together beautifully in Bryant Hoven's form-fitting dresses and snap-on skirts. Epperson offers a gallery of stylishly girlish gestures, so gazelle-like and evocative they should be photographed, one by one, and catalogued for future generations. We, in the meantime, are lucky to have him, painted lips and all, in the flesh.
Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching, created and performed by John Epperson. Directed by Kevin Malony. Set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Mark T. Simpson; costumes, Bryant Hoven; sound, Gil Thompson. Approximately 80 minutes. Through Saturday at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.