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One of them is a small-town pageant winner, circa 1981, who now peddles gay travel on TV. One of them has an obsession with Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer tea. One of them knows all about Sordid Lives. And one of them has become an Internet sensation thanks to his melding of politics and show tunes.

What do they all have in common? They’re the four performers in Logo founder Matt Farber’s Outlandish series, coming to the Camelot Theatres on four consecutive Saturdays, starting Oct. 28 with Sordid Lives creator Del Shores. He’ll be followed by drag star Miss Richfield 1981 on Nov. 4; and drag storyteller Miss Coco Peru on Nov. 11. And on Nov. 18 … the good news is political satirist and show-tune expert Randy Rainbow will be here; the bad news is the show is sold out—as is a second show added on Sunday, Nov. 19. (A small number of series passes, which include Randy Rainbow’s Sunday show, were still available as of this writing.)

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Miss Coco Peru (aka Clinton Leupp) about her upcoming show. One of our discussion topics: Barbra and Liza, and how they are gay-icon stereotypes. Barbra has that nose, and Liza has those big eyes … and that hair! They own those attributes and never apologize for them; Barbra’s album covers even show her profile!

Peru also knows something about a big nose, big hair and big eyes, and she is becoming a gay icon herself. The star of stage, screen, television and the occasional kids’ parties writes all of her own one-woman shows. Her Bronx accent gives away the fact that she started her career on the East Coast—but she has now lived in California for the last 18 years.

She is no stranger to performing in the Coachella Valley; the tea-obsessed Peru has even performed at … several recovery facilities?

“Working with people in recovery—they can go there with Coco,” she said. “I joke that we’re all so fucked up, and they really get it. They want to poke fun of themselves. When you hit rock bottom, and the only way is up, Coco really connects with that for them.”

Her new show is Miss Coco Peru: The Taming of the Tension, and it covers “different themes, including difference between the being present and showing up,” Peru told me. “I take months to write a show so that when people leave my theater, they are rejuvenated and happy. Well, for at least six minutes, before the shit hits the fan again after they leave. That’s just the world we live in now.”

What’s her creative process for creating a show like this? “I usually start with over 100 pages, and then I start to edit them down. I end up with between 20 and 30 pages, including songs which are sung live,” Peru said. “For me, it’s group therapy, and now it’s my turn to talk. Most people will go through a full range of emotions in the hour and 15 minutes of the show.”

Coco Peru has received rave reviews from audiences, and from her good friend Lily Tomlin, whose character Ernestine served as an inspiration. Tomlin even called Peru “one of the last great storytellers”—and indeed, she is.

We talked about the trials involved with growing up gay.

“I had to find my voice—and this was it,” she said. “I talk about how everyone made fun of me, saying I was a girl. I just got to a point where I thought, ‘I am going to show you just how big of a girl I can be.’ So, like the nose, I own just how big of a girl I am! When I accepted who I am, it just felt like I became balanced.”

Peru said she aims to be a positive voice. “I can be bitchy and angry, but my show runs the full gamut of emotions, from being very funny to people getting very emotional during my show. The point is leaving the audience feeling great and leaving the show with a real positive feeling.

“I don’t pick on anyone in the audience; I am way too self-absorbed.”

Peru said her show points out how we’re all connected.

“In today’s world, there is such a disconnect of people. I discuss the ideas we’re all thinking, but I vocalize them,” she said. “We are constantly bombarded with news and information. It’s crazy. There are too many things to try to focus on, then when something happens in our community, it’s easy for (those things) to just slide on by. I also talk about (playwright and female impersonator) Charles Busch and how much he was an inspiration to me. He showed me that you can do theater with a female character and be fabulous.”

The Outlandish series takes place at 8 p.m., Saturday, from Oct. 28 through Nov. 18, at the Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets to individual shows are $30 to $60 (although both Randy Rainbow shows are sold out); series passes start at $100. For tickets or more information, visit www.outlandishps.com.

Published in Comedy

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance