Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Miss Richfield 1981 is the "former beauty pageant winner" created by Russ King, who has been playing the role locally, and on tour, including an annual summer residency in Provincetown, for more than forty years. King grew up gay in Richfield, Minnesota, a suburb of some 36,000 residents where, Miss Richfield is wont to say, "butter is a spice and gravy is a beverage." It lies just south of big city Minneapolis, west of the airport, east of Edina with its posh residences of high-end earners, and north of Bloomington, which hogs the spotlight by being home to the Mall of America. Nestled between those uber glamorous locations, Richfield is bona fide mid-Americana, the perfect terrain to give birth to someone so relentlessly cheery, willing to stumble forward into whatever cultural irritants are chafing the populace, and gloriously inclusive of every race, religion, and gender identity–so much so that during this year's show, Miss Richfield veered from talking about LGBTQIA identities to declaring that the whole alphabet is gay–after all, we are going to need all of those letters eventually!
This year's version of the diva's annual holiday show draws on the theme of cancel culture. Miss Richfield introduces the topic as something that "all the kids are doing," and if you want to stay young you have to keep up with the kids. She draws humor out of the fact that she, herself, made headlines when her guest appearance at the local Richfield public library to do a story hour for young children, in her full regalia, was decried by certain members of the community as "adult entertainment" being foisted on our kids. The actual headlines held up as evidence. There is certainly a lot of grist there for comedy, but at the same time, Miss Richfield doesn't shy away from the sadness and anger generated by intolerance and ignorance.
Taking the tightrope we walk between being honest about things as they are, and sliding into tropes built upon racism (or sexism, homophobia and their ilk), Miss Richfield presents a game show, "Is It Right, or Is It Racist?" For this segment, she changes out of her fabulous oyster shell costume into a PC Police Uniform. She cajoles several audience members to be "team captains" with the rest of the audience forming the teams who respond to such pronouncements as: "27% of immigrants to the United States age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree when they arrive" and "In South Korea, dog is the fourth most commonly eaten meat, after beef, chicken and pork." Are these statements, in fact, right, or are they racist? The results are illuminating, and in the hands of our marvelous host, also hilarious.
The last segment of the show features keyboard accompanist Todd Price, who has all he can do to keep up with Miss Richfield's madcap version of a Christmas sing-along, including updated versions of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." We are also given a tour of the set, festooned with a wide variety of holiday paraphernalia collected by Miss Richfield over the years, including her classic record albums, objects d'art, a Hanukkah menorah, and a steely white Christmas tree decked with blue balls. Yes, there are jokes there, too.
Throughout the performance, Miss Richfield speaks directly to the audience, sometimes picking on an individual attendee–like an older gentleman to whom she pointedly speaks loudly–and sometimes calling on groups, as in "where are my Lesbian sisters?" All of it is meant, and succeeds in being, positive, affirming, and even loving. When you clearly embrace all stripes of humanity, you can also lower your guard and have fun with our great array of diversity without tip-toeing on eggshells. It also helps tremendously to be able to laugh at oneself, as she does.
Michael Robins is credited as the director of this show, though how one can give direction to a force of nature is a head-scratcher. In any case, Miss Richfield seems to know exactly how far to take a detour, and when to reel in and return to the main road. Wayne Laberda designed the hilariously tasteless costumes, and Robb Grier takes the credit for the wigs that are so essential to Miss Richfield's feminine mystique. A charming and still funny Christmas video is the creation of Karl Reichert.
Spending the evening in Miss Richfield's company is not only great exercise for the muscles involved in laughter, but it offers a sense of cleansing, of allowing the petty prejudices even those of us who believe we travel prejudice-free pass out our system. The program states that the show runs ninety minutes without intermission. In fact, on opening night it ran closer to two hours, and whether the additional time was due to Miss Richfield's many improvised bits or not, all I can say is that it still felt too short, too soon to have to part with my new friend. Till next holiday season, Miss Richfield 1981–I'll be back!
Miss Richfield 1981: Cancel Cultured Christmas Pearls runs through December 18, 2022, at Illusion Theater, Center for Performing Arts, 3754 Pleasant Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $45.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.
Written by Russ King; Directed by: Michael Robins; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Wayne Laberda; Wigs: Robb Grier; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Video Production: Dan Polsfuss; Christmas Video: Karl Reichert; Stage Manager: Virginia Culhane.
Cast: Miss Richfield 1981, Todd Price (musical accompaniment).