I’ve just spent a most unexpectedly engaging evening at the theatre, seeing the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” known as The Kinsey Sicks in their return to Theater J, whereat they’ve been in residence previously, as they perform their latest show, titled Things You Shouldn’t Say.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so unexpected had I seen any of their earlier visits, but I hadn’t. Perhaps if the first half or so of the show had prepared me for where the later parts of it would take us, I wouldn’t have been so surprised at how important the evening felt to me by its end, at how moving the piece would become.
I want to write this quickly (you’ve only got ten days to see it — the run ends on July 30th) and with enthusiasm. The show is probably not for everyone, but, for those it is for, it will be a very memorable evening indeed.
I was also unexpectedly impressed by the work’s artistic accomplishment. It’s not an easy thing to so deftly take its willing audience through the hair-pin tone changes that we experience. The show began as light, if pointed, satire, but, before it ends, it has asked us to think, it has challenged us to engage, and it has taken us from parody to powerful feeling, without becoming mawkish.
I will admit that I wasn’t wild about it all as things began. The group, consisting of four drag performers, sing a cappella ditties, mostly featuring new lyrics to familiar tunes, many aimed at the very easy target that resides a few blocks south of Theater J’s 16th Street venue.
Things You Shouldn’t Say
closes July 30, 2017
Details and tickets
I thought some of the lyrics were clever. A take on the theme to The Brady Bunch was an early highlight, as was a number set to ABBA’s “Mamma Mia,” which title, it turns out, rhymes with a notorious STD. “Putin [not Puttin’] on the Ritz” was a lot of fun.
Other bits were less inventive, other lyrics predictable, even sophomoric (particularly during the recurring title number), and some of the insult badinage between the queens induced fewer guffaws than groans, from my seat, at least.
The titular framing device (“Things You Shouldn’t Say”) would jog the memory when it would reappear, but it felt more tacked-on than thematic, and it vied confusingly with the other narrative thread, which recounted the origins of and history about the Kinsey’s. (Oddly, no mention is made from the stage about the name, which refers to the gay extreme on Dr Kinsey’s scale of sexual preference.)
Though some in the audience were responding rapturously, I was less enthralled, although I did feel as if things were coasting along pleasantly enough.
All four voices are terrific, and quite distinct, making it all the more impressive when they blend so nicely. The original members of the quartet were thrust onto the stage after attending a Bette Midler concert in Andrews Sisters drag, and a wink to the Divine Miss M — they tweak her hit “The Rose” — showcases their accomplished vocal work.
The turning point in the show came when Rachel (Ben Schatz, the only currently-performing founding member) pulled someone from the audience for a number about the appeal to a Jew of a gentile romantic partner. That’s when the show became laugh-out-loud funny.
The guy she targeted was named Jordan, and Rachel swiftly and expertly milked enough comic millage out of his name and out of his game compliance that I was put me in mind of the great ad-lib artist Dame Edna. So delightful was this sequence that I began to wish that audience interaction was a bigger part of the evening.
Not long after that, Rachel sat down center stage, in shadowy light, and Schatz just spoke to us directly, soberly, about his life, his activism, and his involvement, in San Francisco in the 80s, on the front lines of the health crisis.
That’s when the show became hear-a-pin-drop quiet, except for the gasps of recognition, of remembrance, of acknowledgement of the history so many in that audience had lived through. Schatz applied the response to that challenge — speaking up, acting up — to the current climate, which the group had been lampooning earlier.
When he spoke of how, as a survivor, he lives feeling “the weight of all the people I couldn’t help,” I was reminded of the power in the plays of another San Franciscan, Robert Chesley. I thought of how the words of both men give such profound specificity to that place and time, and to that defining experience of a generation.
I loved a theme that his remarks engaged: the tension between the impulse toward acceptance and assimilation versus the impulse to protect that aspect of gay culture that is, to use the term that was the title of the classic Craig Russell drag film, (so wonderfully) outrageous.
Rachel/Schatz, after the intermission, paid tribute to another founding Kinsey Sicks member, Jerry Friedman. An anecdote involving a trip to the ER revealed Friedman to be a prime example of that sort of distinctly gay outrageousness.
After intermission, I must admit that the light ditties began to appeal to me so much more than they had before. I was hooked.
And the parody felt more pointed. Trixie (Jeff Manabat) took lead on a sequence about how the current political mood has reinvigorated the dominance of straight, white men, and that broadened into and touched upon a consideration of US nationalism as cultural imperialism. Manabat, born in the US, is first-generation, and spoke of his experience, nevertheless, of being perceived as the “other.”
Trixie’s drag was the least comically conceived. She brought glam realness to the proceedings. Spencer Brown, as Trampolina, had the broadest of the four characters.
During the (much briefer) second act, I began to feel that this program, which had begun in a manner that I was easily dismissing as somewhat facile, was actually and importantly one of the most provocative evenings of political theatre I’ve seen in this age of you-know-who.
When Rachel/Schatz was about to sing the song he had written for his lost friend Jerry, Winnie (Nathan Marken) brought him a glass of water, and Rachel quietly said, “Thanks.” Whether that happens every night, or was a spontaneous example of camaraderie, it read as a genuine moment between two people, and as an indication that the feelings accessed about these issues, the history described, wasn’t being presented in a manner meant to easily manipulate emotion, but rather was honest in a way that elevated the evening for me.
We are, as we all know, in an incredibly divisive period in our politics, in our national mood. This probably isn’t the show to take a red-stater to, if you are concerned about finding a way toward common ground, toward some sort of mutual understanding.
On the other hand, maybe it is. When Rachel speaks of putting the “rage” into “outrageous,” she follows that up by saying that the distinction between the rage in our echo-chamber and the rage in the alt-right echo chamber is that the latter is a rage that isn’t informed by empathy. Maybe an evening with the Kinsey Sicks could make that point to a person otherwise disinclined to join in their satiric laughter.
But that might be wishful thinking. Maybe it would make best sense to bring to the show an open-minded young person, one who could well benefit from hearing the compelling oral history that Things You Shouldn’t Say provides.
And PS: It needn’t be an LGBTQ young person. The guy sitting next to me, who was with a woman that seemed to be his date, was cracking up at the gonorrhea song. Momma mia!
The Kinsey Sicks in Things You Shouldn’t Say. Script: Benjamin Schatz (with the assistance of Jeffrey Manabat, Spencer Brown, and Nathan Marken). Lyrics: Benjamin Schatz. Featuring Spencer Brown, Jeff Manabat, Nathan Marken, Ben Schatz. Scenic Designer: Tom Howley. Lighting Designer: Garth Dolan. Music/Arrangements: Jeffrey Manabat, Benjamin Schatz, Irwin Keller, Chris Dilley. Stage Manager: Kevin Laughon. Assistant Stage Manager/Board Operator: Linz Moore. Sound Engineer: Jay Chiang. Presented by Theater J. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.