Comic actor Coy Covington trowels on the base and mascara far too infrequently for Dallas audiences; underneath all that getup and goo, he has a bloodhound's sense for the moment to play comedy up or down. While he stalks the daytime in man drag, he ought to consider teaching lessons in precision camp. A good place to start would be Pegasus Theatre, the home of his current production.
Covington is the best thing about Pegasus' current double bill of Charles Busch one-acts, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. This statement must be qualified with the observation that much comic talent percolates among the large cast that composes this Busch revival, which was first staged by Pegasus during its 1986-87 season. But those moments when some of the other actors shine feel like gulps of oxygen for them and us, disparate respites from the loud, relentless tone that is, in my experience, the biggest liability of Pegasus productions. Director Steven Shayle-Rhodes graduated from helming community theater shows in Lewisville, Frisco, and McKinney to herding an unruly cast for one of Dallas' most hidebound theatrical venues, a 13-year-old veteran that has survived chronically mixed reviews to offer a mantra of exclusive, overboard comedy. Yet rather than infusing Pegasus with much-needed fresh blood, he continues an unfortunate company tradition: pressing the fast forward and volume-up buttons on actors who have more to offer than we'd ever suspect from the frenetic, contrived, strike-a-pose method under which they labor.
The frustrating evening begins with the second one-act on the bill, Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. It concerns a cockney temp in 1966 (Covington), who emerges as Mod London's top supermodel thanks to the patronage of renegade designer (Jennifer Earhart) and her photographer boyfriend (David Noel); she recovers from a two-decade LSD-induced coma thanks to a vitamin-peddling quack (Nye Cooper). Covington is essentially a supporting player in this one, and for a good part of the show, you feel the lack.
The more consistently funny Vampire Lesbians of Sodom depicts the bitter rivalry between a "westal weergen" of Old Testament times (Covington) and the vampiric succubus (Andi Allen) who not only drinks her blood, but inspires in the comely (and now undead) maiden a thirst for showbiz ingenues--from 1920s Hollywood contract players to wannabe Vegas chorus girls just in from Texas (both played by Jennifer Earhart).
Both Vampire Lesbians and Sleeping Beauty boast terrific visual hooks, from Patricia Renee Korbelic's canny, lovely costumes to the decadently illustrated sets courtesy of New Theatre Company's Bruce Coleman. Equally talented (but only intermittently effective) are Andi Allen as a starstruck London patron and a Cuban-sounding Succubus who devolves from feared deity to Vegas cleaning lady; and Nye Cooper, who invites direly needed laughter to the final scene of Sleeping Beauty with his calmer reading of an '80s fad nutritionist who peddles llama enzymes.
The cast of both one-acts achieves harmony for some very funny dance sequences choreographed by Andi Allen, who has united her co-stars in musical lunacy (the rehearsal for a Vegas showstopper set to Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" is priceless) more effectively than director Steven Shayle-Rhodes does in the undanced scenes. Again, I can't help but look to Coy Covington, who inspires laughter from well-timed facial expressions and tones of voice rather than strident comic campaigning. Pegasus Theatre spends too much time lecturing to audiences about what they think is funny; the performers rarely relax long enough to let us make those discoveries on our own.
For the record, Dallas actor Coy Covington does not want to be referred to as "she." Although Covington has acted only occasionally on our stages over the last few years, the performances people seem to remember him best for are the ones he does in drag. Specifically, he has become the city's foremost interpreter of the luxurious but tart vision of Charles Busch, currently in Pegasus Theatre's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, but within the past five years for productions by the now-defunct Moonstruck Theatre of Busch's Red Scare on Sunset, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, and Pardon My Inquisition. Since Busch himself is known to exit the theater in pumps, and since Covington is just so damned natural onstage in tranny regalia, people assume he flips through the tabloids in long checkout lines at Tom Thumb with red-nailed fingers.
"I have performed in a few nightclubs around town," he confirms of other extracurricular drag. "But when the lights go up in the theater, I peel the dress and scrape the makeup off."
Someone who recently saw the show asked one of Covington's co-stars, "Is that sex change you work with in the play a nice person?"
"I try to look as good as I can onstage," Covington says of his female roles, "but there are limits to what I'll do for my art."
There seem to be few limits to Covington's onstage comic resourcefulness, however. His somersaults into the outrageous aren't so much fearless as disciplined, not surprising for a man who's been training in theater since he was an adolescent and who received his master's from the University of Mississippi. Covington is a self-described military brat whose Marine father moved his family from place to place, including California and North Carolina, as Covington was growing up.
Let's do a doubletake on that resume: a gay man with a military family who got his post-graduate theater degree at Ole Miss. Isn't that combination a recipe for heroin addiction, workplace hostage-taking, or at the very least a chronic bout of bitchiness? Covington would seem to suffer from none of the above, based on our short phone conversation. He insists that his family and the South were rarely a problem.
He has performed drag roles in recent productions of La Cage Aux Folles and Fortune and Men's Eyes in Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama. He says of his college stint and those shows, "My experiences in the South have all been lovely. And I like to work in Birmingham and Mobile," partly because it's an ego thing. "I'm kind of a celebrity in those small theater communities. The last time I worked in one of those shows, I got limo service to take me wherever I wanted to go. The driver would say, 'You need to stop at 7-Eleven for cigarettes? Let's go.'"
As far as his parents go, Covington says: "My father was the conductor of a Marine Corps band, so he was a performer. He's a softer kind of Marine. He and my mother were supportive of my acting and movement classes, but my mother sometimes gently tried to nudge me in a more practical direction. She'd say, 'I know you're a talented actor, but how about taking computer classes?'"
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Ironically, Covington has taken his mother's advice...in service to theater. He currently mans the keyboard as assistant box office manager at Dallas Theater Center, where part of his job is pulling tickets for North Texas critics ("You better watch what you write, mister, or you'll wind up in the mezzanine," he warned me with a throaty laugh).
Since nobody in Dallas has seen him "onstage in pants," Covington admits he has a strong desire to hang up his wig for a while and tackle some male roles. He's currently discussing a more gender-harmonious character in another play with Pegasus Theatre artistic director Kurt Kleinmann. But when it comes time to prepare for a role, Covington insists he doesn't draw distinctions based on the type of costume he'll be wearing. While discussing this, he reveals the secret to his deft, intelligent delivery of the Gay '90s most overexerted aesthetics: drag, and her overbearing big sister, camp.
"In order for material like Charles Busch's to work, you have to play it straight, and hope you're funny in the process. Usually, the more real you play it, the more laughs you get. The humor has to rise naturally from the situations of the play, not from anything you impose on it."
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma runs through June 6. Call 821-6005.