Oakland’s ‘Drag Queen’ provides plenty of irreverent holiday comedy

By Milan Paurich

Does the idea of seeing ubiquitous chat-show guest Sarah Palin reduced to living in a cardboard box on the streets of downtown Youngstown — and battling a heavy-duty cocaine habit — tickle your funny bone and put you in a warm-and-toasty holiday mood? If so, don’t dare miss the fourth annual production of “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” that opened Friday night at the Oakland Center for the Arts.

Not surprisingly, the unemployed Alaskan blogger earns some of the evening’s snarkiest belly laughs. As gamely portrayed by Brooke Slanina (who really rocks a ratty-looking Hooters T-shirt), a cokehead Palin may not have anything to do with the “Spirit of Christmas” per se. But she has everything to do with the wickedly satirical, nothing-is- sacred mission statement of Robert Dennick Joki’s boisterous Yuletide perennial.

A wild-and-woolly, almost stream-of-consciousness mashup of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (among countless other sources of camp-tastic mirth), “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” recalls the best of avant-garde theater and film in its brazen willingness to try anything — no matter how esoteric, lowbrow or potentially offensive to delicate sensibilities — for a giggle, grimace or guffaw, coherence and good taste be damned.

Although rhymes-with-witch cabaret diva Starlet O’Hara (Joki, who also wrote, directed and designed the sublimely tacky costumes) is indeed visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past (Suzanne Shorrab and Nicole Zayas), Present (Molly Makselan) and Future (Murad Ghazi Shorrab), “Drag Queen” is less a fully formed Dickens pastiche than an extended series of digressions (Palin), riffs (“Baby Jane?.” etc.) and X-rated musical numbers. Since this was my first exposure to the Oakland holiday staple, I’m not sure how much of the material is new and how much of it was recycled from previous editions. Not that it really maters. The audience, most of whom seemed to have more than a passing familiarity with the show, ate it up.

And for the most part, so did I. Despite a long-standing aversion to drag humor — and the fact that it was sometimes hard to figure out which characters were which (many of the actors play multiple roles) — I was ultimately won over by the infectious high spirits of the prodigiously gifted cast and Joki’s old-fashioned, “let’s-put-on-a-show” razzmatazz.

Could “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” be a tighter production overall? Certainly. Would a few of the comic vignettes have hit their marks better with an extra script polish? Absolutely. Could some of the actors have benefitted from additional rehearsal time (more than a few lines were flubbed on opening night)? Of course. Yet the occasional sloppiness and deliberate hamminess/amateurishness only enhance the overall enjoyment factor.

John Waters’ early midnight movie sensations were hardly seamless endeavors, and they’re some of the funniest, rudest, most entertaining films of all time. No one would ever accuse Waters’ icon Edith Massey — aka “Edie the Egg Lady” — of being a classically trained thespian. Yet Massey gave some of the most ineffable, unforgettable comic performances in the history of American cinema in cult classics like “Pink Flamingos” and “Desperate Living.” Ditto Joki’s fearless, unstintingly loyal troupe of closet exhibitionists.

Oakland stalwarts such as Makselan (brilliantly doing what seems like a pitch-perfect “Kathy Griffin- Does-Oprah” imitation), Slanina, Zayas, Suzanne Shorrab, Juleah Buttermore, David Munnell, Marisa Zamary, Andrew Labedz and Monica Collier are all dependably good company; and newbies Stacy Anderson, Max Ryan Hanni and Joki personal discovery Ryan Haupricht (who resembles a young Seth MacFarlane) evince oodles of potential.

Even though audience favorite Murad Shorrab’s singing resembles mid-’60s Tom Jones more than it does “Cher: The Vegas Years,” he’s still a certifiable hoot. Besides being a wizardly vocalist, Joki has such crackerjack comic timing that he makes even the script’s occasional groaner (“I’m an eater not a fighter”) seem like the quintessence of wit.

As for the delicious Palin spoofery, my only question is why/how the Levi Johnston jokes didn’t make the final cut. Oh well, maybe next year.

X“How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” runs through Saturday at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For tickets, call 330-746-0404.

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