There may be no more singular challenge for a theatrical LD than to work with Lypsinka. The creation of drag artist John Epperson, Lypsinka is the Platonic form of all the hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hard-loving dames who've ever commanded a Broadway or nightclub stage, a kind of multiple-personality diva whose wild mood swings are her stock in trade. Most drag artists lip-synch to complete musical numbers; Epperson creates astonishingly complex soundtracks, mixing samples from hundreds of sources. This approach works especially well in his latest effort, Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-synching, which opened Off Broadway in August to rave reviews and moves this month to another Off Broadway house. As I Lay Lip-synching is structured as a series of nervous breakdowns and personality splits, frequently cued to the slashing notes of Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho, as Lipsynka morphs from Ethel Merman to Phyllis Diller to Lauren Bacall to Bette Davis and on and on.
Mark T. Simpson, who designed the scenery and lighting, used for his inspiration the diva horror thriller films of the 1960s, those B+ epics like Dead Ringer or Berserk!, in which Bette Davis or Joan Crawford presided over 90 minutes of murder and mayhem. Thus the set, which looks like the facade of a trashy carnival act, starts things off on a particularly seedy note. (Just to make sure we get the point, Lypsinka makes her entrance wearing a straight-jacket, which she immediately doffs to reveal one of her typically glamorous evening gowns.) After all, says Simpson, “This is the edgiest, trashiest Lypsinka yet. Her last show, which I also did, Lypsinka: The Boxed Set, was much more glamorous and lounge-y. This show is dirtier and grittier.”
Simpson adds, “My concept phrase is that Lypsinka is a ‘schizophrenetic’ character — it's that old-fashioned, movie version of multiple personalities.” Thus his cueing involves rapid-fire color-wash changes and flashing strobes during the character's breakdown moments — at some points, the color washes change with each note of the Psycho music. It's all part of Simpson's plan to “make it seem like something that's on the verge of going out of control. We also do live scrolling, trying to match the flip-flip-flip of the scroller with the sounds of the music. It's like the equipment is on the verge of blowing a gasket.” There's plenty of intensive followspot work, as well, with the size of the spot growing and contracting rapidly during the Psycho sequences as well (“The spot operator is a really a character in the show,” says the LD). Simpson's design is loaded with eccentric gobo imagery, including a collage of several Broadway show titles for a 50s medley, a collection of blood splatters, and caricatures of Lypsinka's face. Of course, “they're all custom jobs,” says the designer. “John had a graphic artist design the images for him about a dozen years ago. SFX Design in Texas makes them and keeps them in their files so we can always get another copy.”
Cueing a Lypsinka show is a unique task, which involves intensive listening to the soundtrack, then two days of cueing and three days of run-throughs. The LD notes that, in working with Epperson, they have a kind of private language. “It's the Lypsinka aesthetic,” he says. “We talk in Lypsinka vocabulary. We say, ‘There's going to be a ‘Marnie’ here-that's when the whole stage goes red and the followspot goes in real close” (He is, of course, alluding to the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a frigid kleptomaniac who literally sees red in moments of panic.)
The production opened at Show, a Midtown nightclub. Simpson took advantage of the club's house rig, which included four Martin Mac 300s, four Mac 250s, and one Martin Roboscan 812. In addition, he says, “We rented 18 [ETC] Source Fours, because they didn't have in any good conventional lighting in there.” Control was provided via a Jands Hog 600 console. “It was fun to go into the Wholehog realm to do our cueing. Hopefully, we can just plug the disk into a Hog the next time we do the show.” (For the remount, his plans include two Mac 500s, four Mac 600s, and a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console, plus Source Fours) All conventional lighting was supplied by Big Apple Lights. Wavetek provided the electricians for the production.
Above all, Simpson notes, that the main feature of lighting Lypsinka is collaborating with Epperson. “He's aware of everything. His attention to detail feeds the whole process. In a certain sense, if you can keep up with him, you can't go wrong.” Under the direction of Kevin Malony, Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-synching returns to Off Broadway in late October.