Fall from Grace

Niels Strandskov

From the dramatic surprise entrance (which we will not ruin for you) to the final curtain call, Miss Richfield 1981’s holiday extravaganza takes the audience virtually everywhere except the land where “butter is a spice and gravy is a beverage.”

“Fall On Your Knees: Down On All Fours” is the fourth time Miss Richfield has graced the stage at the Illusion Theater with her program of heart-warming songs, home-style wit and head-scratching crafts projects. Though thoroughly grounded in the kind of worldview that can only be found in a stolid, first-ring suburb, “Fall On Your Knees” is international in scope and deviously urbane in style.

Created by Russ King, Miss Richfield 1981 has gone from monthly lip-synching performances at the Gay ’90s in early 1996, through multiple shows at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, and on to international fame and adulation in such exotic locales as London, Barcelona, Spain, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, (this last, of course, pronounced “Pure-Toe Val-Artah”). Recently, Miss Richfield has appeared on a number of cruises as the on-ship entertainment. Occasionally, this is also the on-pier entertainment, as she is called on to cheer the spirits of thousand-person lines of passengers waiting to pass through Customs at various ports-of-call.

Miss Richfield 1981 is more than a typical drag act. There are elements which parody Martha Stewart for instance, and the general format is skewed far more to cabaret-style, stand-up comedy than the campy takes on show tunes that so often constitute the stereotype of drag performance. That is not to say there is no camp and kitsch aplenty in a Miss Richfield show, of course.

One of the most representative Miss Richfield moments is an ill-fated sing-along routine. Miss Richfield wheels out a battered overhead projector, with some patter about her day job at the post office. Unbeknownst to her, however, director Michael H. Robins is also wheeling out a gigantic fan, which blows white feathers, which are starting to fall from the ceiling, in a simulation of snowfall. Of course, that is not all that gets blown. Miss Richfield’s “discrepancies” with the lyrics of Christmas carols written on them, go flying about higgledy-piggledy. Quite unable to multitask, Miss Richfield tries to simultaneously keep the sing-along going, while picking up the transparencies and trying to unplug the enormous fan. But the slapstick bit is not the end of it. Pianist Todd Price has not registered Miss Richfield’s distress and continues to play the set order of songs, even though the lyrics being projected do not match the melodies. Miss Richfield, for instance, displays the lyrics for “Frosty the Snowman” but sings them to the tune of “Ave Maria.”

In this, as in other routines, Miss Richfield falls prey to drag conventions like impossibly high-heeled shoes with disastrous results. While ostensibly maintaining a sense of decorum, she finds herself pitched this way and that, frequently bent in awkward positions or in danger of taking a pratfall. The parody of femininity here displayed is not-so-subtly critical of other such parodies. Miss Richfield deconstructs drag conventions – calling attention to a particularly unflattering outfit, reminding us of the impracticality of 6-inch platform heels. Her mannerisms and comic business similarly question our expectations of what an impersonation of a faded beauty queen ought to look like.

No amount of deconstruction however, could detract from the near-constant belly laughs that are induced by a Miss Richfield 1981 show. Her patter flows smoother than Richfield spaghetti sauce, and her gentle jibes at the audience fly faster than a speeding Northwest Airlines 747, buzzing across the rooftops of a thousand identical ranch houses.

“Fall On Your Knees: Down On All Fours” plays through Dec. 9 at the Illusion Theater, (612) 339-4944.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]