A new play by E. Dale Smith, making its world premiere in Philadelphia before moving to FringeNYC, reflects on the life, internal struggles, and public image of performer Glenn Milstead–who longed to be taken seriously as a character actor–and his alter-ego Divine–an outrageous larger-than-life counter-culture drag sensation who gained international fame as the star of John Waters’ cult-classic films of the 1970s and ‘80s. DIVINE/INTERVENTION, conceived and directed by Braden Chapman (who knows what it means to lead a dual life as drag queen Mimi Imfurst) is funny and sad and provocative and touching. It captures all the moods of the man who, at 375 pounds, died of an enlarged heart at the age of 42, a few weeks after the release of his and Waters’ first mainstream PG-rated hit Hairspray in 1988, and before achieving the widespread acceptance he sought as a legitimate star of the stage, screen, and television.
The well-researched bioplay, which was three years in the making, features stellar performances by Ryan Walter as Glenn and Bobby Goodrich (also known as his drag persona Cleo Phatra and for his costume designs under the name of Bobby Fabulous) as Divine. The physical resemblance of the two actors is uncanny, and their equal ability to convey the psychology and humanity of their real-life character, with a full range of wit, flamboyance, pain, and rage, is even more so. Raw, audacious, and emotional, together they form a complete three-dimensional picture of a man divided between the mask of drag and the need to be seen for himself, a person who craved love but sabotaged his relationships, and a performer who ultimately wanted more than the notoriety he had, so self-medicated with massive, self-destructive doses of pot, alcohol, and food.
Staged as a running conversation between the two aspects of one soul-searching self in a hotel room on the last night of his life, the actors face each other while looking into opposite sides of a dressing-room mirror. They crack jokes, laugh, do battle, and re-enact their–his–reminiscences, with a fine supporting cast that portrays an assortment of key figures from his past (Dean Carvin as Glenn’s father, Terrell Green and Cosimo Mariano as Divine’s jilted lovers, and Nicholas Scheppard as John Waters). The on-stage appearances are enhanced with voice-overs of news reports and interviews that fill in the details of his life, death, and reputation in the media.
A clever scenic design (Mark A. Dahl) underscores the themes of Milstead’s self-reflection and double life with not only the central motif of the mirror, but also the mirror-imaging of the set and props (the right side is an exact reversal of the left), and the back-wall collage of photos of both Glenn and Divine. Lighting (by J. Kenneth Jordan) alternately evokes the glitzy world of “the drag queen of the century” and the darkness of the demons that haunted him. Costumes by Bobby Fabulous Designs are just that, and they, along with the over-the-top drag make-up (provided by Atomic Cosmetics), recreate Divine’s look to a tee. Though there are a few redundant scenes that could be tightened–of Glenn lamenting his drag creation and his desire to “change it up” and “to be respected” as a “character actor” and not a “freak show”–DIVINE/INTERVENTION is a compelling portrait of a public figure and a private person who died too soon, but whose impact lives on in his films and in this heartfelt tribute. [Voyeur, 1221 St. James St.] July 16-August 2, 2015; thedivineplay.com.