"At first, I was having a hard time with it, and I still haven't completely connected yet," says De Marco, dressed in baggy canvas shorts and white tank top. "There's parts where I have [the character], and parts where I still feel a little distant. She's this person who has this incredible personal journey in an hour and a half right in front of you."
It's a curious statement coming from De Marco, who's been on his own journey for years. Last year, after growing tired of San Francisco's arts scene, De Marco moved to New Orleans. He's quickly become known for energizing everyone he encounters, whether DJ-ing at private parties, doing puppet shows at area libraries, or, more importantly, his work with the theater group Running With Scissors, which he co-founded with Richard Read, the director of grants and technology for the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).
With Running With Scissors, De Marco has been a veritable talent magnet, helping to pull in performers ranging from actors on hiatus to Bourbon Street singers. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is De Marco's chance to shine on his own. In a tour-de-force role, De Marco plays the tragicomic Hedwig, who recounts for a nightclub audience her journey from East Berlin to the rural Midwest to non-stardom, all in what essentially is a skewed retelling of Plato's Symposium. The role provides De Marco with the same kind of depth that made his recent lead performance in Running With Scissors' Camille so fascinating to watch. Both characters are, in essence, bitchy drag queens whose bitter humor is rooted in true suffering -- women who pay heavy prices for wanting to be loved for who they are.
"Much like Camille, as the play goes on, you get to see the real person behind that façade," De Marco explains. "And the armor is stripping down and you're left with this real person you ultimately feel sorry for and connect with in some ways." He pauses, and shrugs: "And, you know. Funny clothes and good hair. And good fashion sense."
Never a stranger to moving around, De Marco was born in the Tampa Bay area, lived in Baltimore after his parents divorced, then spent a year in New York after high school, "living on the streets, and all that kind of stuff." On a lark, he returned to Florida and worked his way up to a role as Peter Pan at Disney World. ("I could do the super-happy thing," he says.) Restless once again, he tried to do the same gig at Disneyland in California, but was forced to start at the bottom again (costume characters, no face), and quit.
Then he moved to San Francisco, where he was surprised to see other gay people who also were finishing up their "post-punk layover phase." Falling in with the theater troupe Sick and Twisted Players, he learned how to apply his fascination with such pop-culture icons as TV sitcoms and horror movies -- "Vincent Price is my idol," he says. He hung out at Klubstitute, a place where "alternative queers or anyone queer could get up and do anything onstage."
Soon De Marco was working regularly and getting good reviews. "He definitely had his own following in the city," says Johnny Kat, a close friend and collaborator. "I think we helped change the way people look at theater in San Francisco."
But as the dot-com industry invaded the city, venues became too expensive to rent for all kinds of artists, and many fled to cheaper environs. Plus, De Marco admits, "At some point I felt like I was running on a treadmill and there wasn't anywhere else to go."
A year ago, De Marco and friends fulfilled their vow to stop doing Mardi Gras in San Francisco and see the real deal, dressing up as characters from Alice in Wonderland. As he wandered around the Krewe of St. Ann parade, dressed as the March Hare, he started chatting up the locals around the R Bar, asking about the arts scene. He spotted Read and his partner, Jonno, talked about theater, and realized they had mutual interests. "We knew all the same movies, and could quote each extensively," says Read. "Every single John Waters movie ever made, for one. Those are the best ones to gauge."
Read instantly took De Marco under his wing and showed him around. One key stop was singer Dorian Rush's happy-hour gig at Seaport on Bourbon Street. "That was a big clincher," De Marco recalls. "Meeting her was amazing. It was a beautiful day, nice weather, open windows facing the street. I'm sipping on an ice tea, raw oysters for a quarter, and hearing this incredible music. And I was like, this happens every day?"
Back in San Francisco, he told his roommate, Jim Jeske, that he was going to pack up and move -- and that Jeske should consider moving with him. The two returned, checked out the town, found an apartment, and returned to New Orleans in a month. Not long after, De Marco and Read were planning projects, recruiting potential actors (Rush included), and holding auditions for Running With Scissors.
De Marco started off here by duplicating some of the work he did with the Sick and Twisted Players. The result was the cross-pollinated trilogy Texas Chainsaw 90210, The Scooby Witch Project and Gilligan's Island Survivor. The pieces are almost self-explanatory: De Marco and Read would rework scripts for one work while insert cast members from another.
"Honestly, Texas Chainsaw (performed at the Audubon Hotel) was fun, but it wasn't any great theater," De Marco says. "I just wanted this to be an exercise, have us run in, slap 'em in the face and then run back out again. 'Hey, we're here, this is what we're gonna do, so get ready,' y'know?"
The shows got funnier with each production, and a core group emerged. Jeske, a nifty set designer, could play a wide variety of roles, Rush blended her singing talents with incredible comic timing (her turn in Scooby Witch Project was otherworldly), and Jason Toupes -- who'd given up theater for a few years -- became De Marco's drag-queen equal. Read filled in wherever needed, and Amanda Madden provides vivid costume designs.
Once finished with the parodies, De Marco and Read decided to produce Camille, Charles Ludlum's absurdist take on Alexandre Dumas' classic La Dame aux Camelias. De Marco had performed in the title role of the doomed French courtesan back in San Francisco.
"Camille was a big step for our group," he says. "It wasn't like, 'I'm going to go and be Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. That's easy. You have something to draw from. This was an exercise for all of us to create characters on our own and decide what they were going to be like."
Along the way, veteran local actor Bob Edes approached Read and said he wanted to play the role of Camille's maid, knowing full well he would be in drag. He almost wound up stealing the show, so dead-on was his comic chemistry with De Marco in their scenes together.
The production also benefited from impossible good timing. Times-Picayune theater critic David Cuthbert knew that the late Ludlum's former lover, Everett Quenton, was in town for a performance as one of the wicked stepmothers in a touring production of Cinderella. Cuthbert introduced the Scissors troupe to Quenton, who provided invaluable insight into Camille.
"It was eye-opening in a way," De Marco recalls. "Everett said, no matter how funny it is and how funny the lines are, you have to play the reality, and if you play the reality of it, the jokes are just like icing, and it makes it even funnier." As fate would have it, Quenton also had been working on correcting errors in Ludlum's script, and even shared the changes with the cast.
In his own performance, De Marco showed a depth of performance he'd only hinted at in his previous local work. "I knew that it was a really heavy piece, but I also knew that at the same time by the way the group was working, that they were ready for it," he says. "It made a lot of people sit up and pay attention to us, where I think before people may have discounted us as strictly a one-kind-of-theater troupe."
From the beginning, Carl Walker knew De Marco was a unique talent. The director best known for his Native Tongue series had had his eye on Running With Scissors since seeing Texas Chainsaw 90210. Walker also knew he wanted to bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch to New Orleans. A collaboration between actor-singer John Cameron Mitchell and musician Stephen Trask, the show required a lead performer with energy and talent, and now Walker believed he had a match.
"When you do something like Hedwig, it's sort of like Hamlet; you don't decide to do Hamlet and have an audition to decide who'd do him and hope Hamlet shows up," says Walker, who is co-directing the play with Read. "There was no one else in New Orleans who I could imagine doing it, flat out. He's funny, he's smart, he can sing, he's done enough cross-dressing roles that he knows this is not just a drag show. There's a lot more to it than that, and he was game.
"He's young enough and he's hip enough to understand the rock 'n' roll references, which I think is what's important here," Walker adds. "It's not Whitney Houston."
No, Hedwig is not Whitney. She's the ultimate wronged woman, a young boy who makes a permanent sacrifice for love in a botched sex-change operation. She winds up enduring a series of humiliations while searching for what she believes is her missing half the key reference from Plato's Symposium, which professes that we originally were three sexes all split in two by angry gods. The musical takes place in yet another club date she stages in the shadow of the tour of her former lover, rock star Tommy Gnosis, whom she accuses of stealing her material. (In a bit of "double-crossing," Rush plays Hedwig's male lover, Yitzak.)
When not referencing Plato and myriad pop-culture figures, Hedwig and the Angry Inch also connects the musical dots of 1970s-era pop, glam and punk rock. The soundtrack may go down in history as music theater's best in capturing the essence of rock, surpassing Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent and even Tommy with its influences that range from David Bowie and the Velvet Underground to the Sex Pistols and even Todd Rundgren. For this local production, De Marco and Read slapped a band together through acquaintances and auditions. But even after one rehearsal with De Marco, it's obvious that bassist/music director Benji, pianist/acoustic guitarist Eric Laws, drummer Cori Walters and guitarist Rhoades Diablo have the spirit of the show.
De Marco, Read and Walker had hoped the local production would coincide with the limited national release of the already acclaimed movie version, which actually won't hit New Orleans until Aug. 17. (The film won the Audience Award, and star/director Mitchell won for Best Director, at this year's Sundance Film Festival.) If the trio and the band can pull off this production, it will show once again what kind of impact one person can have when he meets the right group of people.
"Some people move to New Orleans, and they come here with great plans and then they get sidetracked," Read says. "And then they get frustrated and they leave because they don't understand New Orleans. Flynn is one of those people who can galvanize us and bring us altogether."
And, hopefully, he'll stick around for a while. "I'm still thrilled to be here," De Marco says. "I love being here. From talking to all the people, I could tell the alternative art scene here was on the cusp of breaking loose a little bit. It has the same potential as when I moved to San Francisco." -->
- David Rae Morris
- A trash pop-culture addict, Flynn De Marco draws plenty of inspiration from TV sitcoms and horror movies -- 'Vincent Price is my idol.'