Years ago on a bitterly cold and snowy night in Denver, my husband and I trudged across much of downtown in a driving blizzard to see a musical production about the life and times of Patsy Cline. The set was period fifties, the costumes and music followed right along.
“How I Stepped Out as a Transvestite from BLUNDERLAND,” a play by Rufus Cadigan has much the same look and feel. Cadigan’s play chronicles the life of Bill Carlson from his journey to find himself as a drag entertainer to a deacon of the Episcopal Church. The show opens on a cozily lit stage furnished with a simple vanity adorned with wigs and junk food remnants.
Blunderland is the place we each live until defining ourselves and no longer allowing others to do it for us. Blunderland is the place we realize the Church prays for all the oppressed except gays. Once each figures out, in Bill Carlson’s words, “you are what you are and that needs no excuses”, Blunderland is relegated to the annals of life.
As a little boy, Carlson dreamed of dressing up as a girl. He became an entertainer at The Office, a gay bar in Rockford, Illinois where his alter ego drag star Seaway Rose strutted her stuff in sequined gowns.
Beginning in the 1950’s, running all the way to the 2000’s, Blunderland takes its audience on an intimate and whimsical journey through the sexual, physical and emotional stages of Carlson’s existence; eventually revealing how a man so dissimilar to his world was able to find his own drumbeat to march to.
Told in a narrative, the play navigates through bad boyfriends, public discrimination, the closeted military, and a drag career culminating in a man who still has the ability to smile. The show baits the audience throughout, asking them to join in the festivities of Bill’s life, but mostly to enjoy what they have left of theirs.
The storyline is the life of one man, yet the story transcends that man to become a history of the LGBTQ struggle for rights and recognition. Never has such a summary of our common struggle been exhibited so clearly.
Cadigan, the playwright, said of his friend Carlson, “I think his life was a remarkable journey of a man who faced enormous difficulties and despite the hardship of much of his life, lived with great dignity, warmth and kindness to others, and a wonderful sense of humor.”
In the spring of 2008 a reading of the play was finally performed. Mr. Carlson played himself and through the monologue told his story to an invited audience of friends and community supporters. His LGBT friends cried and laughed together watching Bill being Bill, a show more difficult than necessary as none of his invited siblings, family or relatives bothered to attend.
“The play was written for our company,” explains Skylar Branstool, the show’s director. BLUNDERLAND stars Mark Phillip Schwamberger, an Evolution actor and Managing Artistic Director, as Carlson.
“Mark is truly amazing and someone who really pushes himself. I don’t think anyone can say otherwise after seeing what he does in this show,” beams Branstool.
“I don’t want people to simply see that he was a drag queen. I want them to understand what a struggle it was for him to find that path towards self-acceptance and to actually follow it. Lack of understanding and acceptance is still something the gay community faces and his fight proves that we still have so much more to do,” says Branstool, “I know that Carlson’s generation has taught me a great deal.”
Finally, Blunderland had its world premiere in June, 2013 during the annual Columbus (Ohio) Pride Celebration. Now Schwamberger is bringing Blunderland to South Florida with performances at Andrews Living Arts Studio, 23 NW 5th Street between November 19 and 22.