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THEATER REVIEW; Charles Busch Plays It Straight, So to Speak

Published: October 24, 1997, Friday

Sometimes, being glamorous, witty and divinely attired just isn't enough for a woman, or, for that matter, a man dressed as a woman. Even if the restless soul happens to be as absurdly glamorous and sublimely witty as Charles Busch has been in the succession of Hollywood-inspired drag performances that have made his name on the New York stage.

Mr. Busch, the actor and author of such delicious self-starring vehicles as ''Vampire Lesbians of Sodom'' and ''The Lady in Question,'' has been searching in recent years to extend the boundaries of his theatrical persona. He appeared in a valiant but labored production of Genet's ''Maids'' in 1993, daringly conquered the role of a man in his charming 1994 comedy ''You Should Be So Lucky'' and analyzed his lust for Adrian-style gowns and high heels in his drolly confessional solo show of last season, ''Flipping My Wig.''

Now Mr. Busch has taken his examination of sexual identity to new levels of intricacy and earnestness in a play with the promisingly grand name of ''Queen Amarantha,'' which opened last night at the WPA Theater. In it, he plays a woman who dresses as a man and is loved by a sexually ambiguous fellow who worships the boy in the woman.

Though partly inspired by Greta Garbo's cross-dressing classic, ''Queen Christina,'' and ripe with potential for dizzy complications, ''Queen Amarantha'' is definitely not the antic spoof Mr. Busch's fans have come to expect. Indeed, the audience members at the performance I saw seemed happily braced to start laughing as soon as they sat down, with the hopeful sight of Eduardo Sicangco's medieval rubble heap of a set in full view before them.

Such hopes were quickly dispatched. Elements of which Mr. Busch had made such cunning satiric use in previous productions were in evidence, arranged like gaudy targets in a shooting gallery: the hopelessly convoluted period plot; the knowingly overripe dialogue; the contrast of costume-drama propriety with frank, subversive sexuality.

Yet this time around, these are not things to laugh at. Nor, it soon becomes clear, does Mr. Busch intend that they should be. Mr. Busch, who directed ''Amarantha'' with Carl Andress, is doing something very brave here: trying to transform his stock-in-trade silliness into a platform for serious discussion. But the overall effect is deflating, like a first-rate comedienne taking on classic tragedy. Imagine Lucille Ball doing Lady Macbeth, and you'll get the idea.

''Amarantha,'' for the record, follows the story of the restless, good-hearted queen of the title (Mr. Busch), who likes nothing more than to visit her country's peasants in masculine garb, and her arch-rival, the conniving Countess Thalia (Ruth Williamson), who steals Amarantha's throne. But what the play is really about is coming to terms with the sexual ambiguity in all of us. When Amarantha says that ''we fool ourselves if we think that we can exist as both man and woman,'' she obviously needs to be taught a lesson.

This is mapped out in two sets of relationships. Amarantha renounces her throne for her would-be assassin, the handsome Adrian (Marcus Lovett), who likes his Queen best when she looks like a lad. And Thalia, to hasten her rise to power, marries Amarantha's foppish cousin, Roderigo (Mr. Andress), whose passivity (as the show makes spectacularly clear) extends even to the bedroom. No matter who has on which of Mr. Sicangco's ''Camelot''-style costumes, it's debatable who wears the pants.

Most of this, including tedious passages of exposition, is played out with the theatrical equivalent of a furrowed brow, and it's all dismally frustrating. You can feel Ms. Williamson, the evil scene-stealing housekeeper of last season's ''Green Heart,'' itching to fly away into some stratosphere of camp. She's still the jewel of the show, but she seldom gets to vamp and embellish as you long for her to.

Mr. Busch is even more subdued. He has developed a marvelous wide-legged stomp of a walk for his trouser scenes. But because this actor has never been a naturalistic impersonator of women, he seems lost when stripped of the ingenious, exaggerated gestures and grimaces. That, after all, was what really created his characters, not the costumes.

Nearly all famous clowns, like famous sex objects, reach points in their careers when they yearn to step into the respectable realms of drama and show the deep thoughts behind the foolish facades. (One thinks of Marilyn Monroe pining to play Grushenka in ''The Brothers Karamazov.'') But any inspired comic artist (and Mr. Busch, at his best, is one) conveys serious ideas without frowning.

Even at their goofiest (or, for that matter, their cattiest), Mr. Busch's female creations were eloquently shaped by both a gut-level affection and a cerebral appreciation of their cinematic prototypes. An unusually sweet realm of satire, one that goes beyond irony, is Mr. Busch's real kingdom. It's waiting for him any time he wants to reclaim it.


By Charles Busch; directed by Mr. Busch and Carl Andress; sets and costumes by Eduardo Sicangco; lighting by Michael Lincoln; music and sound by Aural Fixation/Guy Sherman; production stage manager, Mark Cole. Presented by WPA Theater, Kyle Renick, artistic director; Lori Sherman, managing director. At 519 West 23d Street, Chelsea.

WITH: Carl Andress (Roderigo), Charles Busch (Queen Amarantha), Ruth Williamson (Thalia) and Marcus Lovett (Adrian).

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