Little Orphan Trannies

Out in Plano, on the big stage at Collin County Community College, you've got The Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show, a loud, dirty, sexy, glorious rock musical that casts dozens of live actors alongside the sort manipulated by strings, rods and other mechanical contraptions. Over at Dallas Theater Center, there's I Am My Own Wife, Dallas native Doug Wright's Pulitzer-Tony-everything-winning drama starring one actor, Canadian import Damien Atkins, playing 34 characters all by himself.

Each production explores what happens when a dude wears a dress. In Wife, the central figure, a real East German named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), keeps her fashion choice simple, donning a shapeless black peasant-y number with heavy orthopedic shoes and a black silk headscarf. On the other hand, Rocky's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, that "sweet transsexual from Transylvania" (played by the dish-a-licious William K. Lanier, possessor of killer pecs and a six-pack so tight you'll think it's painted on), sluts it up in a barely there S&M ensemble combining lace, leather, fishnets, hot pants and shiny red platform boots with five-inch heels. One's a homely creature tormented first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. The other is pure glam, tormented only by his/her loneliness and a desire to create the perfect (male) sex partner. Oddly, they both occupy large mansions where weird stuff happens in their cellars. But there the similarities between these transvestites end.

Quick aside: What is it with all these trannies these days? Everywhere you look it's another man in a muumuu out to entertain the masses. Tyler Perry as Madea. Martin Lawrence as Big Momma. And that guy who plays the female judge on American Idol. What's his name again? Never have so many men donned so many ugly frocks for so many audiences. Milton Berle, not to mention Norman Bates and J. Edgar Hoover, would be so proud.

So anyway, down to business. You're in the mood to catch some primo new trannie-tainment. You skip the movie Transamerica because, as critic Rex Reed said, it's hard to buy Felicity Huffman as either a man or a woman. You want your she-males live anyway, for maximum effect. That leaves a college production of Rocky Horror and a super-serious, very professional, expertly staged I Am My Own Wife.

Each has much to recommend. Rocky for its fresh and frantic take on the old fave from the '70s. Wife for the quality of the writing and the acting, even if at the end of two hours you walk away a little nonplussed at all the critical hoo-ha over the musings of one old German trannie-granny.

Because its run ends March 12, try first to get to Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show. Quad C Theatre, that junior Juilliard on Jupiter Road, never does any show halfway. This time they've staged a musical few professional Dallas theaters would attempt simply because of its size. Besides the live band (ably led by musical director Mark Mullino) and nearly 30 human cast members on the stage, they've incorporated dozens of puppet people: giant rod puppets, life-size marionettes, enormous mechanical figures operated by puppeteers on stilts.

The puppet Rocky--Frank's muscle-bound, superhuman, manly man love slave--stands 10 feet high, worked by five fearless drama students, including James Ortiz, who created the show's colorful population of creatures. A celebrity-icon puppet "audience" sits in boxes flanking each side of the stage. Get to the theater early enough to watch the arrivals of all four Beatles, Michael Jackson (wearing a surgical mask), Einstein, Cher, Batman, Wonder Woman, Gene Simmons, Mr. Spock, Hitler, Jesus, Lincoln, Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton. The show before the show is almost worth the price of admission (which is cheap enough at Quad C anyway...bring a new stuffed animal for their charity and you get in for free).

Best of all, in their usual seats above the stage sit Statler and Waldorf, those wrinkly critics from The Muppet Show. They don't just offer bitter commentary; now they provide the rude audience shout-outs so familiar to fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Bravo to puppeteers Jason Ralphe and Ryan Maffei for their crack-up comic timing.)

For those new to the Rocky experience, no plot recap would make sense. The show sends up vintage sci-fi movies, drag queens, uptight sexual mores of the 1950s, rock and roll and, in this version, the current occupant of the White House. Instead of the white-coated scientist who usually narrates the oddball goings-on in Rocky Horror, we see via large video screens actor J-M Specht executing a devastatingly funny impersonation of Mr. Bush, with a puppet "Sammy" Bin Laden sitting next to him as he barks out the instructions for doing "The Time Warp" dance. (A puppet Bush would have been too, too redundant.) The digs at the nation's "strategerist"-in-charge are many and mean, giving the show a contemporary satirical spin that feels subversive and dangerous--exactly how Rocky Horror felt for its young devotees when it debuted in midnight screenings decades ago.

Director Dane Hoffman has assembled a fiercely talented cast at Quad C. As Brad and Janet, the hapless nerds who stumble into Frank's castle in a rainstorm, Josh Dennis and Kim Whalen sing great and show off cute bods. Their bed scene--interrupted mid-coitus by the randy Frank-N-Furter--this time is acted out with miniature proxies, making for some of the wildest puppet sex since Team America.

To tell more would be to give away too many of Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show's surprises, which come fast and furiously. "Just like Brad!" as Statler and Waldorf might say.

Now to the grimmer tale of Fraulein Mahlsdorf, who is busy being her own wife over at Dallas Theater Center. This is just the kind of heavily pedigreed production professional theaters love to hype in their season brochures. I Am My Own Wife took all the big awards a few years ago, vaulting Doug Wright, who grew up in Dallas and took part in the children's theater program at DTC in the 1970s, into the pantheon of Pulitzer winners alongside Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon and Sam Shepard. His latest work, just opened on Broadway, is the book for the new musical Grey Gardens, based on the cult classic documentary by the Maysles brothers about the eccentric Bouvier sisters.

Wife is a strange strudel of a play. It's about this real person, a man who lived his life as a woman in East Germany. Wright discovered the elderly Charlotte (who preferred to be thought of as female) in the early 1990s on a tour of her 23-room house, which she called a "museum" and in which she displayed antique furniture, clocks, Victrolas and other items dating back to the 1890s. Fascinated, Wright made repeated trips to Charlotte's home, gathering hours of interviews about her life and the life of other gays in wartime Germany. He turned the anecdotes into the two-act play.

Wright makes himself a character in Wife, and while there's really no plot, much of it deals with what the writer found out about Charlotte that is at odds with her own memories, like how she ratted out an antique dealer friend to the East German secret police, for whom she was a regular spy. "I'm curating her now," the Wright "voice" says in the play, "and I don't have the faintest idea what to edit and what to preserve."

And that is a central problem with Wife. Some of the stories Charlotte tells are fascinating; others, ho-hum. Charlotte is no Anne Frank. She's kind of a prickly old bird, not a noble heroine. And if we don't like Charlotte and don't care what happens to her, there's not much in the play to engage the emotions or provide that uniquely transformative experience of really fine live theater.

Wife is a nice vehicle for showy acting (not to mention a prodigious memory) and actor Damien Atkins is giving it his all. This tall, lanky actor easily morphs in and out of the many accents, silhouettes and moods. But the overall experience of sitting through this play is akin to having someone with a talent for voices read aloud a long feature article from The New Yorker. At the end, you admire the writer's skill and the reader's energy, but you don't feel much of anything about what you've just heard. Wife is a verbal museum piece. Like the characters in Rocky Horror, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is stuck in a time warp. She just doesn't make you want to get up and dance.