Camping in the Garden

Open Circle's new show remembers the days when drag was sinful.

WHEN GREASY EMCEE Nick Arthur takes the mike, the audience whistles and hollers, impatient to see the glamorous chanteuse or the sultry stripper. Once they are satisfied, Hotcha Hinton delivers some of the off-color corn that killed burlesque in a grass skirt and open-toed heels. An ordinary floor show, perhaps, except that men wear the dresses and Nick has painted on her mustache.

Return to the Garden of Allah

Re-bar till April 16

In Return to the Garden of Allah at Re-bar, creators Ian Bell and Scott Bradley of Open Circle Theater summon the spirit of the notorious haven for Seattle's gay underground that ran in the gritty years between the war and the Space Needle. As the elegant headliner Jackie Starr (Andrew Tasakos) warbles a sad tune or smoky Francis Blair (Wade Madsen) grinds and peels, one wonders: This was taboo? The ensemble rendition of "Pistol Packin' Mama" would be dull but for the men wearing Dale Evans fringe. Benjimen Blair's brash Hotcha wears an exaggerated brassiere as unmistakably phony as the fruit perched on his head, a reminder that this is all in high-spirited fun. It's an evening of grins shared with a cast that keeps it lively and authentic to the period.

Still, if Return were only a re-creation of cheesy drag acts, it would wear thin fast. But the onstage cabaret mixes with backstage drama to show the stories of the performers and patrons. Francis frets about the club's hefty police payoffs. Nick jealously limits her girlfriend Rita. Jackie maintains his illusion by changing wigs in privacy. Watching Bill Scott (Christopher Guilmet) deny his homosexuality even after "marrying" Jackie or the pressures on crooner Wanda Brown's (Karen Gruber) interracial union, we better understand the world within and beyond that First Street basement. Amid bigotry, the Garden's extravagant costumes (splendidly designed by Ken Powers) are what they hide behind in order to be themselves, and we're fortunate to get such a good peek.

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