Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Commedia Delle 'Disastrous'


Behind the scenes of the third Champagne White comedy

Faux-flamin' fun in Disastrous, with D'Arcy Drollinger (left) and cast. photo: Gareth Gooch
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With equal parts slapstick and a mirthful version of the Hero's Quest, D'Arcy Drollinger's third installment of the Champagne White comedy shows at Oasis have left audiences rolling in the aisles. This time, the parody of disaster movies finds familiar characters ­and running gags in a nonstop Vaudeville-style romp.

"I didn't deeply make that conscious decision," said writer-director and star Drollinger of the commedia d'elle arte-styled tale(s) of a heroic dancer who solves dastardly crimes plotted by a recurring villain. "But I've studied that so much for my other plays and musicals, so that when I'm building a plot, going for those hero's journey archetypes –the villian, the gatekeeper, the mentor– it's kind of inherent."

The broad comedy style, complete with familiar lines that audiences familiar with the series shout back, are familiar territory for the co-owner of the nightclub that's become a home for original drag shows.

"I feel like this series of Champagne White shows has fused my worlds together," said Drollinger (the first edition premiered at the former nightclub Rebel, returning at Oasis, along with the second version). "It has a sitcom feel that everyone knows and feels. It is so cartoonish, there is the feeling of the masked theatre, especially having the pupetteers do the two-dimensional flames."

The deliberately fake flames are created and moved by the duo team of Todd Young and Joe Casserly. But more about those creative guys later.

Drollinger said the final script for Disastrous came together quickly when he was faced with an imminent deadline.

"I had finally finished Sex and the City," (one of the many TV-shows drag parodies). "My parents had already planned to visit for the show, but I hadn't written a word. I visited a friend's house in Palm Springs, and for ten days, I just wrote. I returned with a script, and polished it with my cast in rehersal."

The collaborative nature of the cast helped set in the finishing touches.

(left to right) Adam Roy, Matthew Martin and James Arthur in Disastrous! photo: Gareth Gooch

"Having a cast with the same actors is great," said Drollinger. "They've been initiated into my school of comedy, so they're able to fine-tune the jokes in rehearsal. James Arthur knows 'Sergio.' Matthew Martin knows the villain. There is no ramping them up, since they've already got it."

The seven-week process included shooting all the video work, setting fight scenes, choreography, and a dizzying array of sound cues.

"It was an intense process," said Drollinger. "We cut about twenty minutes out after the first night. Two scenes were cut, plus a filmed sequence, which are fascinating, but you don't miss them. Having to work within the time constraint of a nightclub, switching over for other events, has made me more ruthless in 'killing my darlings.' I know a joke is funny, but it lets me become a better editor."

Puppeteers Joe Casserly and Todd Young in the Oasis dressing room with a few of their creatively constructed props. photo: Steve LeMay

Puppet people

Along with big jokes and high kicks, the amusing floating props, created and operated by Joe Casserly and Todd Young, add a comic visual element to the show.

"Joe and I have been collaborating on various productions almost from the day we met," said Young. "Very early on, we found there to be a synergistic force between us that more than doubles our creativity individually. Luckily, we also share the desire to unleash that power on the unsuspecting public every chance we get!"

Young is also known for his creative artwork on the gate of their Page Street apartment building as The Gate Guy SF. He creates festive holiday-themed art out of cut-up plastic tablecloths.

"For many years I helped create gala-style events for nonprofit organizations that were working with a beer-bash budget," said Young. "By volunteering my time on design and construction, spending judiciously, and as much as possible, putting together recycled, discarded, and found items, in ways so the viewer subconsciously adds the high end details. I found this to be of great value when used in a cabaret style stage production."

 My background studies in the Psychology of learning, perception, and how our brains work, studio arts, crafts, construction, and years as a visual merchandiser give me a familiarity of materials and some unique skills to take creative concepts and run with them. D'Arcy, and the Oasis, gave me the chance to see how much is possible."

Young also creates art elsewhere in Hayes Valley, and for many special events.

'Champagne' (D'Arcy Drollinger) and 'Trixie' (Matthew Martin) in a wacky stage fight, with POW! and BOOM! props by Joe Casserly and Todd Young. photo: Gareth Gooch

"Everything I put my name on is a labor of love, and I find it incredibly rewarding when others respond to it positively and tell me stories of how it inspired them create. That is what feeds my drive to keep pushing myself in creative ways and find new ways to break paradigms.

"The balance between realistic and recognizable, and the cartoon-like style, is such an incredibly narrow gap that even the slightest lean in any one direction can destroy the whole vibe we were trying to hit. Challenges lead to interesting solutions, and hopefully, a really fun to watch show."

Drollinger had worked with the Young and Casserly in his 2010 dark satire Scalpel. "They knew what I wanted," said Drollinger. "They got very invested in to bring in all these different worlds."

The breakneck speed of Disastrous' joke upon joke, with one sight gag or corny pun after another, leads to a combination of kid's show with a bawdy edge of camp. And whether or not you've seen the previous two incarnations of the Champage White saga, it's still a hoot. Audience participation is played well, even with a missed cue, staged or not.

"It does feel like that for us, where things do fall apart and the audience is in on the joke," said Drollinger. "A lot of the technical jokes, like the spotlight moving away from me, are now planned, but it happened as an accident."

But there can be no accidents with the funny fight scenes, and swift costume changes. The supporting duo of henchmen and friends, played in multiple costumes by Adam Roy and James Arthur, are part of the fun.

"They have costume changes from thug to lady thug in about 45 seconds. Backstage is so crazy sometimes."


Trixie (Matthew Martin) encounters Champagne White (D'Arcy Drollinger). photo: Gareth Gooch

Trixie's kicks

Veteran stage actor Matthew Martin, in his third time as the evil queen, albeit a twin this time named Trixie, joked about the simplicity of his new/recurring role.

"I go out there and do it. They applaud. I look left, they laugh. I look right, they laugh!"

Being more serious, Martin said, "It's all in the writing and it goes to D'Arcy. This is the third time the same cast is together, and that is such a rarity, to have the original cast reassembled. So that's a magic formula. It's a privilege to have parts written for us.

Martin said he enjoys the campy over-the-top humor of the show. "Someone who hasn't seen the other two installments won't feel left out."

Indeed, part of the fun of the show is seeing the actors have fun. Martin said he enjoys "being part of a repertory, like Christopher Guest's films, having the same crew and the same energy, having a role tailored to me."

During the creative process, Martin said Drollinger was "receptive and collaborative without being a pushover. He knows what he wants, but is very egalitarian about it. And he appreciates everybody's respective talents and highlights it."

Martin agreed about the point of the stock characters being comfortably familiar, yet the camp script taking new heights ­(or depths)­ of humor.

"Being able to play the villain or the bad girl, or a henchman, is fun, because he writes deliciously within the archetypes."

As for the nightly rigors of high kicks, and faked punches, Martin, who has been dancing since childhood, brought his decades of experience to the role, and said the fight rehearsals, choreographed by Jon Ficarra, were like attending a kickboxing class.

"My childhood dance teacher was there at opening night," said Martin. "It made me happy to see how much her profession gave to me. She hadn't seen me in a theatrical piece. She loved it. She taught me to make it good or even great."

Disastrous continues at Oasis through September 17.

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