“Don’t let the word ‘can’t’ stop you. Sink your teeth like a bulldog and don’t let go.” Mabel Marlowe, Kenneth’s mom
Kenneth/Kate Marlowe (Photos Courtesy of Triangle Productions)
Kenneth/Kate Marlowe was a self proclaimed hustler, a hairdresser, an accidental Madam, a female impersonator (then, gender illusionist), an army private, a Christian missionary, a mortuary cosmetologist, a newspaper columnist (horoscopes), and the author of eight published books. For the final decade of Kenneth’s life, she was Kate, woman.
As inhabited by Wade McCollum, Kenneth/Kate perambulates from the back of the theater singing to herself: “…we can wear powder/We can wear paint/ We can even make you think we are what we ain’t…” She’s wearing men’s pants and shoes, a woman’s jacket, sunglasses and scarf. “Life (pause), am I right?” the character rhetorically asks. “I was born in Iowa 1926 – I know I look good…” The persona is girlish, any exaggerated gesture conscious. It’s 1975. Pre-Stonewall. She’s looking back.
Mrs. Marlowe wanted a daughter. It’s an old story. She dressed young Kenneth in “bloomers, bonnets and pink bows” until her child was four. The boy loved playing dress-up. He was pretty. A first crush in high school evoked fantasizing about “setting up a home and cooking chicken.” Kenneth recognizes her real self immediately and without qualm. She becomes the school “candy store” = available. Curiously there were, in this telling, next to no repercussions. The heroine careens through a series of mishaps, threats and disasters like a pinball in a padded machine, always landing on her feet, always optimistic.
In men’s rooms and movie theater balconies, teenage Kenneth learns a secret language of handkerchief placement as indication of sexual disposition. Halloween is her favorite holiday. A best friend applies the first lipstick. (Later eyelashes and brows are applied: “They have to be symmetrical or you’re going to look permanently inquisitive.”) Mr. Marlowe chances upon his son in drag, beats her up, and leaves home. She’s never quite able to separate the two events.
Fellowship is found at a local church.“…singing and smiling; they thanked me for coming…” (If parishioners only knew.) Mom becomes an alcoholic and oddly against going to church. She sends Kenneth to relatives in San Francisco. There her son meets streetwise Candy (fisheye aplomb) and Candy’s Sancho Panza, Dutchess. (Imagine twee with an overbite; coquettish use of shoulder and hips.) “Hey. Whatschaname?” McCollum pivots between some 35 distinctive characters with creativity and precision, never dropping a stitch or employing an out of place voice.
The Iowan is christened “Princess” and taken under more savvy wings. Nonetheless, she gets arrested and is put on a bus home by apoplectic Aunt Vertie. Kenneth gets off the first stop, cashes in her ticket, and returns. When money runs out, Candy suggests the fledgling turn tricks – “You mean charge for it?!” – which leads to hoped for security in the form of a Sugar Daddy.
The young man is ineffably sweet. It isn’t long before generous, if unappetizing Charlie enters her life as benefactor. Circumstances are surprising. Candy advises, the mentee listens and learns. A tender parenthesis ensues. Kenneth goes to beauty school becoming a hairdresser. She’s restless. Chicago is next. Effusive charisma serves her work at a salon. Seen spontaneously performing atop a bar, she’s then hired as a drag entertainer at the huge sum of $100 a week! The club is owned by a gangster.
We watch the performer get her sea legs in successive cities between hair gigs until her career takes off. There’s no question she gets better as do imaginative costumes. McCullom sings (he wrote the song) and dances – consciously both awkward and well. The actor has quite an extension. From the first, an infectious sense of exuberance pervades. Nothing is vulgar.
By the time stripper Sally Rand is emulated, professionalism and style are exemplary. The wry, discreet act (like Sally, Kate is never completely nude) is adroitly choreographed in low light. Oh, the ostrich fans! Rand later became Kenneth’s hair client and friend as did Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Armistead Maupin based the iconic landlady Ana Madrigal in his “Tales of the City” on Kate Marlowe.
There’s no fourth wall. McCollum interacts with the audience – often among us – in the best possible way, drawing us in, flirting a bit, asking for advice, confirmation. Not a moment feels inappropriate or forced.
Towards the end of the play, the heroine suffers horrible abuse, all the more affecting because of its deviation from an unusually positive norm. The adroitly manifest event is painful to watch. She recovers, however, rising like a determined phoenix, transitioning in 1975/76.
Donnie wrote a play about a Portland Oregon Madam and wondered whether there had been a male equivalent. He found two, Scotty Bowers, who procured gay prostitutes for Hollywood insiders, and the initially unwitting Kenneth/Kate Marlowe whose flamboyant, trailblazing life touched him. Gorgeous was initially a book published by the writer’s Triangle Productions. In turning it into a play, Donnie hopes to reach more of the community inspiring empowerment and celebration.
At 90 minutes, the piece is just right. We’re treated to a glimpse of an immensely varied, can-do life, authentic against the odds. Dialogue is never overstated. Make Me Gorgeous arrives entertaining, illuminating, and moving; Marlowe herself eminently appealing.
Photo Courtesy of Triangle Productions
Actor Wade McCollum presents the kind of rarely seen one man tour de force that reminds us how transformational theater can be. (No pun intended) He’s multi-talented, mercurial, adorable, and sympathetic. Kate’s honesty and dignity are as evident as her tenderness and joy. McCollum moves on to Water for Elephants after January 28. The role will be assumed by Darius Rose (aka drag performer Jackie Cox) Feb. 1.
Walt Spangler’s marvelous pre-Barbie-ish set is a pitch perfect amalgam of the era and feminine fantasy. Production Props (Brendan McCann) add specificity and wit. Jeffrey Hinshaw’s costumes offer tacky, aspirational stage wear, half masking, half glorifying womanhood; great fun.
Production Photos by Maria Baranova
Make Me Gorgeous! By Donnie
Additional material by Wade McCollum
Based on Mr. Madam: The Life and Times of Kenneth/Kate Marlowe (which revised, is entitled Us)
Partially based on Marlow’s own 1964 autobiography, Mr. Madam
Starring Wade McCollum
Directed by Donnie
Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s
308 West 46th Street