Shanghai surprise: in Shanghai Moon drag master Charles Busch spoofs those hokey old "mysteries of the Orient" movies.(Review)

Author/s: Don Shewey
Issue: March 4, 2003

Shanghai Moon * Written by Charles Busch * Directed by Carl Andress * Starring Busch and B.D. Wong * The Drama Dept. at Greenwich House Theater, New York City (through March 9)

Charles Busch is a unique presence on the American cultural landscape. Two years ago he won a Tony nomination for writing The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, the long-running comedy that starred Linda Lavin on Broadway and then toured the country with Valerie Harper in the title role. Last year he achieved his lifelong dream of playing a leading female part in a movie with his self-penned Die Mommie Die, which recently had its world premiere at the high-powered Sundance Film Festival. Busch has written a new book for Boy George's London hit musical, Taboo, which Rosie O'Donnell is producing on Broadway this spring. Meanwhile, he remains devoted to his first love, which is performing onstage as a drag diva in self-written plays that simultaneously satirize and celebrate the old movies he grew up watching on TV.

Shanghai Moon, his latest vehicle, parodies a peculiar pocket of early B-movies in which brassy American dames rubbed up against period stereotypes of "the mysterious Orient." Busch portrays Lady Sylvia Allington, who arrives in China with her husband, the British consul. She is met by the suave General Gong Fei and his staff: the ancient Dr. Wu and the beautiful young astrologer Mah Li, who loves Gong Fei. A comic melodrama, the play hurtles through a zillion plot twists involving a priceless jade Buddha, drug smuggling, false identities, and suicide by chrysanthemum sniffing.

The jokey script and Carl Andress's highly stylized production exemplify state-of-the-art camp, the form of failed seriousness in which the gap between intention and execution is exaggerated for comic effect. Busch has always cultivated a tongue-in-cheek distance from his roles, and you see all the layers here: a man playing some version of Barbara Stanwyck or Mae West who is in turn playing a ludicrously overblown character.

Busch the writer gives Busch the actor deliciously outrageous stuff to do, such as an opium-fueled dream sequence that allows him to perform a hoochie-coochie dance in a tiara-topped outfit and a courtroom scene in which a bare butt is the best defense. He is surrounded by some very good actors, most notably B.D. Wong as Gong Fei, hilarious whenever he turns out to the audience to intone any Chinese name (and breathtaking when he strips to the waist). Close in spirit to the work of Charles Ludlam's late lamented Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Shanghai Moon skillfully jumbles together the conventions of stage and screen, silly vaudeville, and kids' play.

Shewey writes on theater for The New York Times.

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