Stepping Into Varla Jean Merman’s One-Ring Circus

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-The following post was submitted by Jacques Lamarre for TheaterWorks-

Over twenty years ago, I attended Wigstock, a day-long dragstravaganza in New York City. Each drag queen had only one number to make an impression on the thousands of people in attendance. Some of the performers were forgettable. Some were a hot mess. Some, like RuPaul and Debbie Harry, were memorable for being themselves. And a handful of the queens came out and nailed their performance. Performing her legendary “School House Rocks” medley, Varla Jean Merman killed it – or in today’s parlance, she slaaaaaayed. I was bewitched.

Claiming to be the unwanted by-product of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman’s 32-day marriage, this candy-colored crackpot possessed a killer operatic voice, a twisted sense of humor, and a girlish giggle. Time Out NY called her “a delirious synthesis of Divine, Karen Finley and Montserrat Caballe…this big, beautiful creature is a kind of demented genius.” I wouldn’t disagree. Her combination of childlike innocent and minor felon was truly unique and hilarious. I searched out Varla Jean performances in New York and then in Provincetown where she has staked her claim as the resort town’s premier drag artist.

In 2004, my former boss Michael Wilson invited Varla to appear in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Hartford Stage. I was dumbstruck and fan-girling that my favorite drag queen was going to be in residence at my workplace for the better part of two months. It was during this time that I became acquainted with Varla’s alter-ego, Jeffery Roberson. Varla is Jeffery’s id unleashed. Where Jeffery is generally shy and quiet, Varla is an attention vampire. Varla gives Jeffery permission to let his freak flag fly.  We bonded over John Waters, Strangers with Candy, and Patrick Dennis (the queeny author of Auntie Mame). In some ways, we are kindred spirits.

In short order we became friends. Jeffery asked me to help him write his upcoming summer show. I underwent drag queen boot camp and, in a few months, there my name sat under my idol’s on the show poster for Girl with a Pearl Necklace. That was fifteen years and fifteen shows ago. During that time, Jeffery’s fame, artistry and humor has only grown. He has performed in Tokyo, Puerto Vallarta, Austria, London, and just about every major city in the United States. He even took to the stage at Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House.

Despite being in-demand around the globe, Jeffery still manages to find his way back to Hartford where Varla has a staunchly loyal fan-base. She has appeared at Hartford Stage, Cinestudio, The Mark Twain House & Museum, and, last year, TheaterWorks. This coming Sunday, she brings her one-woman circus act Varla Jean Merman’s Under a Big Top to the Wadsworth Atheneum in a co-presentation with TheaterWorks. It’s fitting, because this wacky warbler is a work of art. I’m thrilled that we will get to share her subversive and sinful circus act at the same time that the family-friendly Cirque du Soleil is in town. By the time that you realize that she has stolen your wallet and your heart, Varla’s freak show will be on to its next destination.

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