Hook, line, and Lypsinka

Somewhere between drag and life lies The Passion of the Crawford

LIP SERVICE "Why are gay men fascinated with Joan Crawford?" John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, asks contemplatively over the phone from New York. "One reason I'm drawn to her is because of her face, which is so graphic — beautiful and scary and ridiculous at the same time. It became even more so in the 1950s, and then in the '60s and the '70s, it softened somehow."

All alone in a hallowed spot somewhere above great female impersonators from the past who lack a feminist consciousness and contemporary drag queens who don't know how to act, one finds Lypsinka, the role of a lifetime for Epperson, who translates cinematic gestures to the stage like no other performer. Lypsinka's new show, The Passion of the Crawford, portrays the great movie star through a different avenue than that used by most post–Mommie Dearest drag queens. The show's source material is Joan Crawford Live at Town Hall, an onstage interview with Crawford late in her career. "When I moved to New York in 1978," Epperson says, "I remember that across the street from Radio City Music Hall there was a whole window in the Sam Goody store promoting the vinyl recording of Live at Town Hall. It had this multiple Andy Warhol–like image of her, and of course I had to have it."

The Crawford captured on Town Hall is more than a little tipsy. A recent bootleg CD reissue has fun with her awkward asides about planes flying through thunderheads and her many portentous declarations, ending with a remix that splices her comments for maximum comedy: "I wish I were Duke Wayne, really. Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way." Considering Lypsinka's incredible offstage talent for editing dialogue, it's safe to assume that The Passion of the Crawford won't play things straight either.

But in sticking to a thorough portrait of Crawford rather than using dialogue from dozens of movies to form the ultimate movie megadiva, The Passion of the Crawford marks a departure for the peerless Lypsinka, whose visits to San Francisco's Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint in the '90s might be the last peaks of an era when there was art instead of just commerce in the Castro. This show returns for its second run at the downtown cabaret mainstay the Plush Room, which is fitting since Epperson mentions the celebrated cabaret return of 75-year-old Marilyn Maye as one recent inspiration.

There's a fun irony to a phone chat with Epperson, the real voice behind the lip-synching star of some of the most hilarious phone call scenes ever staged, and by the end of our interview, we're as tipsy as Crawford at Town Hall. But in this case, we're drunk on camp, whether discussing Pauline Kael's rave review of Brian de Palma's The Fury ("She totally got it," Epperson says), an After Dark review of Little Edie Bouvier Beale's post–Grey Gardens cabaret show ("Did it talk about the eye patch she wore over her eye with the flower attached to it?" he asks), or the many splendors of Dario Argento's Suspiria ("I love it when Joan Bennett says, 'We've got to kill that bitch of an American girl,' " he declares, doing a perfect Bennett impression). Of course, a mention of Suspiria-era Bennett can only lead to her Dark Shadows costar Grayson Hall. I tell Epperson that I have a biography about Hall titled A Hard Act to Follow. "A hard actress to follow," he retorts.

During a recent Washington, DC, engagement of The Passion of the Crawford, Epperson used his time offstage to dig through the Library of Congress's film collection and see movies such as 1971's Pretty Maids All in a Row, directed by Roger Vadim and starring Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson. "Roddy McDowell and Keenan Wynne are also in it," Epperson says. "And an actress called Joy Bang.

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