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The Commons
The Arts

Drag trip

Harral Hamilton and a cast of local legends heat up Valentine's Day at BMAC

Originally published in The Commons issue #242 (Wednesday, February 19, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.


BRATTLEBORO—Filled with a standing-room-only crowd, the main hall of the Kahn-Mason Gallery at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) was transformed for one night last Friday into a seedy bar, the Double Deuce Lounge.

There, the audience got to see “Royal Flush,” a celebration of drag, the act of assuming the appearance of a gender with which one does not identify for the purposes of performance.

The show was produced and introduced by Harral Hamilton, with live performances from local drag artists, including “Candi Schtick,” “Mama Mayhem,” “Freddy Mercury,” “Lavie Putain,” and the “Mona Lisa” herself (the last two impersonated by Hamilton).

In addition, an artist portraying David Bowie literally broke a leg — or, more accurately, an ankle — and could not perform, as Hamilton told the crowd, but she was still there supporting her fellow artists from the audience.

“We always wanted to do another drag show again at the museum,” says BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld. “The last time we had anything like this here was about 10 years ago, during the museum’s Andy Warhol exhibition. That was before my time as director, but two or three times a year someone would come up to me and say, ‘Do you know the best time I ever had at the museum? It was that dance party.’

In conjunction with the Warhol show in 2004, the museum had staged a disco party at the River Garden, replete with twirling disco ball, retro dance music, and performers in drag in an homage to the legendary Studio 54 in New York, circa 1977.

“We always meant to do another one, but only now have we gotten around to it,” said Lichtenfeld. “Events like this are part of our long-range mission to bring new audiences into the museum, and to develop BMAC as a community resource and as simply a fun place to be.”

BMAC exhibits and events manager Margaret Shipman explained that the museum staff transformed the hall into a tawdry bar at the suggestion of Hamilton, who works for the museum and is a performing artist himself.

Hamilton says that he was approached by Shipman and Lichtenfeld to produce this evening, although he remains a little uncertain why they picked him.

“I am not really a drag artist, since I have only done drag one time before,” he says. “My background is in theater, and I did star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I adored that challenging role, and it was a big hit in town.”

The first of Hamilton’s impersonations — described by Shipman as “amazing creations” — started the show off when a painting of the Mona Lisa miraculously came alive and danced across the stage to the delight of an infatuated cleaning man.

Hamilton’s second performance was as a dewy-eyed young girl experiencing the heartbreak of lost love as she sang “Frank Mills” from the musical Hair.

In his most elaborate role of all, Hamilton introduced for the first time that evening his character of Lavie Putain, a washed-up lounge singer struggling through a performance of “Falling in Love Again,” the Marlene Dietrich standard from her classic film, “The Blue Angel.”

“I think of Lavie Putain as an old lounge singer, who I thought would fit nicely into the atmosphere of the show. I like the character,” Hamilton said. “I think I can use her a lot in my future, because it can be adapted to a lot of different venues.”

Although many of the other performances lip-synched to famous recordings, Hamilton did his own singing.

As Mama Mayhem said, even though her own numbers were all dubbed, “There’s nothing like doing it live; it’s better than doing it dead.”

“Besides me, I gathered together a lot of local talent and some familiar names in the drag scene, like Candy Schtick, who likes to give an audience a good time.”

Shipman noted that drag shows have become rare in the area since the local gay bar, the Rainbow Cattle Co. in Dummerston, closed in 2004.

“Some of the people who often performed there, such as the evening’s second m.c. Mama, were here on Valentine’s Day,” says Shipman.

“It was a fun event, a good event,” said Shipman of Friday’s show. She believes that BMAC hosted the evening purely “for the joy of it, for all those all those people who came, and also for us who work at the museum who came too.”

“Of course, I suppose BMAC also had an eye on the prospect of bringing in new people and making them them feel comfortable in the museum,” she added.

But she said she does not believe that those new people need specifically be from the LGBT community.

“I do not at all see this as a particularly gay event, although drag shows traditionally have attracted a large audience of gays,” she said.

“I feel the LGBT population in Brattleboro has been pretty well integrated into the community. Here, they are not isolated somewhere out there. I think Brattleboro is open to all kinds of things, because ours is a town where everybody feel can welcome.

“The museum has always seen many LGBT men and women at the things we do here. I do suppose a show like this does have a special appeal for the gay crowd.

“But lots of straight people are into drag, too,” Shipman said. “All people think it is fun to dress up.”

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