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”As the culture is changing,” says Irwin Keller of the drag a cappella group the Kinsey Sicks, ”we become sort of the daring-but-doable entertainment in small towns.”
The ”dragapella beautyshop quartet” has recently performed in places such as Huntsville, Ala., Laramie, Wyo., and Greenville, S.C. The quartet even has had repeated gigs in Utah.
It’s all a far cry from roots in San Francisco, where the act was hatched at a 1993 Bette Midler concert.
”We thought it would be really funny to dress up in drag as the Andrew Sisters and go see the show,” says Keller, who expected hundreds of others to show up with the same idea. “We got there and we were the only drag queens — other than Bette. So we were very conspicuous. We just started hamming it up.” A promoter asked them if the four friends would do it again, but next time sing. Stars were born.
Seventeen years later, Keller, who plays Winnie, still dresses up and harmonizes with co-founder Ben Schatz, who plays Rachel. Jeff Manabat has performed as the group’s third Trixie for six years now, while Spencer Brown has been the third Trampolina (neé Vaselina) for two. It’s been a full-time affair for Keller for a decade. Asked if he ever tires of playing dress up, Keller concedes, ”When it’s time to sit down and put on the makeup, I have a certain groan in my body. But the payoff of walking onstage is so big.
”And it’s not like I’m putting on a Klingon outfit for six hours, for crying out loud,” he laughs.
The quartet, specializing in tricky four-part harmony, returns to D.C.’s Theater J starting this weekend for its holiday-themed show, Oy Vey in a Manger. An annual San Francisco tradition, it’s a D.C. premiere.
”This show is part of our global effort to stamp out holiday cheer,” teases Keller. ”I think it’s lifetimes of annoyance with the holiday season, all just filled into an hour and a half of displeasure, [intended as] some comeuppance against the Muzakization of Christmas music.”
Among other angles, the show sends up what it means to be queer and Jewish during Christmastime. It even includes one cover of a Yiddish song, according to Keller, who along with Schatz is Jewish. The setting is a biblical barn, which allows the Sicks to explore ”the Jewish-gentile tension around the holiday season.”
But don’t take it too seriously.
”It’s all ridiculous,” says Keller. ”I don’t want to overplay the level of dramaturgical fineness of this piece. The truth is, it’s outrageous and fun, and we will stop at nothing for a laugh.”
Before the Kinsey Sicks, both Keller and Schatz were lawyers working in the realm of HIV and gay rights. (Keller sang for opera companies and synagogues on the side.) Schatz was even an HIV policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. The 50-year-old Keller, originally from Chicago, still sees himself as something of a queer activist. ”For somebody who went through the Act Up and Queer Nation ranks,” he says, ”to be able to speak your mind in a creative way — to do your activism in a way that people then applaud you — is absolutely mind-blowing.”
Keller says people even applaud the Kinsey Sicks in conservative small towns — eventually. ”We’ve gone to some places where there has been outcry before we arrive, and protests threatened. But once we arrive, it never happens.” Protests never materialized in Salina, Kan., for example, when the Sicks performed as part of a big outdoor kid-friendly festival. ”Once we were onstage and people started hearing us, it was a lovefest,” Keller says. ”And that says something about how this country is changing for queers. I know that we end up back in these debates about ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ and gay marriage, and sometimes it feels like progress is happening at a snail’s pace. But even just in the 17-year life of the Kinsey Sicks, the changes we’ve observed, in where we can go and how we’re received, speaks a lot about really a very broad cultural change that’s happened.”
Oy Vey in a Manger opens Saturday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m., and runs through Jan. 2, at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $60. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit boxofficetickets.com.