Dark Horse 2015: Master Puppets
(Photos will be uploaded later tonight)
PORTLAND, OR -- The night went like this: Pinnochio, a guy who struggles with the truth, walks into a drag bar . . .
In a time honored tradition, the second-best-of-the-best trickled into Portland this week to compete in the ever-secret, ever-gay, nearly-nude Fung Wah Dark Horse Invitational Wildcard Playoff (FWDHIWCP). They flew here on their own dime, with hundreds of supporters in tow, to stand empty-handed in the spotlight one last time with a fleeting hope to advance to this year’s National Finals at the Hawthorne Theatre.
As someone who has witnessed several thousand performances over the past decade, and even had the opportunity to judge the World Championships in Finland, I can unquestionably say that every single performance delivered Thursday night was of second-round-Finnish caliber.
The house manager, who early on was a typically-salty fuck-this-shit-I-did-sound-for-Latrice-Royale-in-the-90s type, had by the end of the show become an awestruck fan for life. Managing a drag bar, he had probably seen as many double-takes from his crowds (“that can’t be a man!”) as I have seen air guitar acts, and at the end of the night he thanked me for giving him that kind of experience at a club where he thought he’d seen it all. I told him all I do is push spacebar, and even worse I had only pushed it twice before DOUG THE THUNDER STROOCK relieved me so I could judge. But I did promise the manager I’d pass along his praise to the 20 people who earned it, so there it is.
And these performers left everything on stage. Everything. I know this because I’m the guy who cleaned it up: four or five bandanas, fake blood, a pair of camouflage breakaway pants, the tattered shreds of a defiled wedding gown, gummie bears, a ski pole, more fake blood, unworn baby shoes, a pair of mechanical wings, a cape, fudge stains, and approximately $7.25 after a confused fan made it rain on the night’s first place champion, ERIK ITTAR (Erich Hacker).
Back to Pinnochio, the guy who struggles with the truth. So he walks into this drag bar . . .
And melts our fucking faces.
Dressed as a stumbling Pinocchio puppet, Erik Ittar (say the name out loud to decipher the secret code) is a longtime performer who has played on mid-size stages from San Francisco to New Zealand. Although always entertaining, I’m not sure he’s ever made it into the second round, let alone onto the National stage. Shackled by his puppet strings early last night, Ittar’s performance was a story of conformity, rebellion, and eventually rebirth when he severed his puppet strings and was for the first time free to be the person he always wanted to be (again, this was happening at a drag bar). Although Ittar attempted a similar act in San Francisco, it was clear that this performance was more polished, and the metaphor was no longer lost. It was a brilliant routine that has an excellent chance at getting him into the second round at the Nationals.
Adorned even more elaborately was ICARUS (Mahlon Koopman), who performed as the character on our 2009 t-shirts, an angel of death on top of a pile of dead guitars with wings and a blue cape and little broach that is an identical, although smaller, angel of death. When the six-foot-something performer stood on the tiny stage, and his mechanical wings went from folded to full-span, a “holy fucking shit” hush came over the entire club. Outside became a cheapskate peepshow as people walking past stopped, shit themselves, then pushed their noses and palms into the window to see what would happen next.
For a minute, everyone thought he was going to fly. After his minute was up, we all thought he did.
Importantly, Icarus recognized the inherent limitations of wearing a mask: you lose facial expressions, which allow performers the most powerful, yet subtle way to connect with their audience. To solve this, Icarus’ mouth was hinged to the performer’s own, and his eyes were connected to some kind of switch that was hit during key percussions in the song. To be sure, the mask was gamble. But it absolutely panned out.
In his second round, Icarus ditched the mechanical wings but kept his long, exaggerated tassels which had an effect like those Chinese ribbon dancers in the olympics. It was like watching a seven foot tall Chinese girl prance around the stage. But still this memory of Death, equal parts grace and terror.
Los Angels’ SIX STRING GENERAL (Tim Granlund) delivered the most layered performance seen in years. I have no clue why he didn’t advance to the Nationals, and I’m sure a lot of fans feel the same. 6SG entered the stage with a trademark salute, wearing a skimpy black vest, pink camouflage pants and matching bandana. As he tore up Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal,” he began tearing away his costume, piece by piece. The crowd was blown away when, with expert timing, underneath his pink fatigue pants was a second pair of pink fatigue pants. Under his pink bandana? A second pink bandana. And under that skimpy black vest was another, even skimpier, black vest.
His round two was equally impressive, perhaps even twice as impressive, when he tore off his pink camo bandana to reveal what we were all waiting for: a red white and blue bandana. Next he tore away his pink camo pants to reveal what we were all really waiting for: red white and blue tighty whities. And in a moment of improvisational genius that I’ve never seen – again, after thousands of performances – he brought his act to the judge’s table and stole their beer, in a red-white-and-blue collectible Budweiser bottle, to perfectly match his new bandana and undies. America.
I watched his face closely as he finished that beer, and saw for the first time the vulnerability behind the uber-confident General’s persona, as he looked across the table and saw each of the five judge’s beers. What followed was that age-old conundrum many of us struggle with every weekend, especially at a drag bar: do I stop drinking now, while I’m still relatively ok?
–Or, instead, do I drink every motherfucking beer up in here. Six String, a man after my own heart, chose the latter.
6SG was one tenth of one point from advancing to the National Finals, a deficit likely due to his performing early in the night. What he did was technically perfect, funny, and absolutely new. After speaking to many people in the back office – including those at the very highest levels – if there were a way to honestly slip him into the Finals I suspect we would have. (If it were up to me, I’d just do it dishonestly, which is why I’m still just some schmuck who pushes spacebar).
JIM HATFIELD (Jaime Farnan) and VAN DAMMAGE also delivered riveting performances from opposite ends of the costume spectrum. Hatfield went with an understated black-wife-beater-and-hat combo, while Dammage nailed an elaborate flamenco Victor/Victoria. Dammage’s second round was equal parts art and danger, perhaps garnished with stupidity, when he blindflded himself and played the entire unfamiliar track to perfection while walking around an equally unfamiliar stage. At times, he sort of stumbled on and off, and several times concerned fans and local staff rushed toward him as he did, either to prevent his fall or give themselves the best view of it.
There were so many inspired performances that we might have to release this post in limited edition serial-form, before and after the Finals, because who knows if anything that happens on the big stage tonight can top what we saw on Thursday. KARA PICANTE absolutely came into her own. It was a G. Tso Money moemnt for me, where this person who has always been rather good but never quite great came out and showed everyone what no-frills perfection looks like. Her costume was sort of an all-around homeage to performers near and far: I saw Gemini in her tasseled leg warmers, I saw Magic Cyclops in her Lamé, I saw Shreddy Fucking Mercury in her mesh sleeves. And her performance was on par with those names, too. Her facials were Facemelteresque, her guitar slides Hot Lixxean.
Every God Damn performer – like the young AIR-O-DYNAMIC, who’s probably spent more time in gay bars with us than in conventional bars with his fake ID; like PORK SWORD, who gave a performance that his body-doubles MASTURBATING BOOGER or SINGAR THE GOAT DEMON would die for; like ROCKSTACHE (Charles Williamson), who continues to be the guy having the most fun and the guy least giving a shit about whether he makes it all the way or not.
–And like LOST HEARTBREAKER (Rob Nechanicky) who, year after year, triumphs in the face of excellence.
Dark Horses, this one’s from me and also the higher-ups here at USAG Corporate; and from the house manager who once slept with Ru Paul; from the crowd whose faces melted with Capt. Airhab’s chocolate shit, and all the ladies I spoke with who took the stage at the Embers after our show: Bra-fucking-o.