Figuratively Speaking

Tuesday January 16, 07
by Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly

Varla Jean Merman is not only Anatomically Incorrect (as the title of her recent show at Le Chat Noir proclaimed), this unique creature is incorrect in just about every way you can think of. She (or he, or they) push the limit of what it is possible to laugh at. And she gets away with it. In fact, outrageousness is part of her charm.

Did I go back to "she" and "her"? I seem to be settling on the feminine pronoun. So be it. Merman (aka Jeffrey Roberson) is a drag act. But in the modern world, "drag" has gradually taken on certain stylistic connotations. You think of "drag" now, and you think of "camp." Well, Merman certainly knows how to camp it up, but she also harks back to some pre-camp kinds of drag -- to the days when comedians in music hall and vaudeville got laughs by cross-dressing.

In fact, although gender confusion is one of Merman's themes, she also wanders through a free fall of surprising associations worthy of the Marx Brothers. After all, Groucho, Chico and Harpo raised the bar for looniness. I mean, what do you make of a curly headed mute harpist who carries telephones in his coat pocket, shakes hands with his leg and chases chorus girls like a cat trying to pounce on a sparrow?

In any case, Anatomically Incorrect started with an introduction to "Varla Jean's 'You Gotta Have Heart' Organ Delivery Service." Well, it kind of started there. Somehow, related or unrelated to transplants, two doctors in white examination coats (Steve Coenen and Kai Brothers) entered and kicked up their heels, only to be joined by Merman herself -- in an East-of-Suez getup -- mounted on a spitting camel.

A blue light sequence took us back to medical concerns by setting aglow some vital organs appliquĊ½d on a body suit Merman stripped down to. The show was off and away.

But wait. Detours were meant to be part of the fun. In a music video projected on a huge floor-to-ceiling screen, Merman lamented in song that "Tequila made her clothes fall off."

The next bodily disquisition involved the audience. "Who," she asked the audience, "has big boobies?" To assuage shyness, she volunteered that the biggest breasts in her high school class belonged to a student named Thomas.

As for herself, Merman noted with pride that she's stacked -- a triple D -- and she doesn't "pity the itty bitty titty committee." Apart from her impressive bosom, Merman is a tall, sturdy, graceful individual with cascading red hair. She speaks in a breathless, baby voice, but sings full tilt and dances with brio. She also doesn't spare the high kicks.

You might think the videos that ran off-and-on through the show gave her a moment to catch her breath, but, in fact, she must have been backstage furiously yanking zippers and tearing velcro -- for there were many costume changes.

One of those videos took a gander at cosmetic surgery -- in particular, celebrity face-lifts. In another Merman crooned her love for a poor blind man -- crooned and lampooned, I should say. Sounds dreadful and tasteless, as well as incorrect, but somehow, it was just plain funny, especially when the blind man nearly brained our lovesick lass with his white cane. Speaking of tasteless, yet funny: one piece coupled the heimlich maneuver with romance. But, I can say no more. This one truly beggared description. Finally, we met a public service icon in the form of a raw plucked chicken, wearing a wig, which warned of the dangers of salmonella.

Merman herself wrote many of the songs. Others came from here and there -- including a duet from the opera Samson and Delilah, in which the seductive diva towered over the biblical strongman (Mark Cortale).

All the music was recorded. Curiously, one of the most effective numbers was a quiet change-of-pace tune, in which Merman sat on a stool and accompanied herself on an unamplified ukulele.

You can see from this description that Anatomically Incorrect was a up-to-the-minute screwball cabaret. There were, in fact, many fine points that I missed -- as I learned from chatting with Merman afterward. The tequila song spoofed Barry Manilow, "Blind Love" spoofed Lionel Richie and the "Salmonella Chicken" spoofed Liza Minnelli. But, old square that I am, I managed to enjoy the show without catching the references.

Her nibs also told me she lives in Marigny now, but the life of an itinerant player keeps her on the move. Soon, she's off on a tour that includes Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Hawaii and Sydney, Australia.

Keep your eyes out for a new show the next time she comes home.