BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Capering about the stage dressed in cowboy/disco chic, with pursed red lips and a face caked in corpse-meets-Kabuki makeup, Dandy Darkly is a mincing, lilting, alliteration-spouting avenger whose signature look screams horror — but it’s no mere Halloween gimmick.
What you’ll see at the UNDER St. Marks theater on October 29, 30 and 31 is what you get all year long. That’s both disturbing and reassuring — effects that, while seemingly at odds, are twin pillars supporting a solid philosophical foundation.
Birthed in 2010 on the stage of the Stonewall Inn and developed through a series of guest appearances on Gotham’s cabaret and storytelling circuit, Darkly is the “Southern fried sissy” creation of Brooklyn transplant Neil Arthur James.
Trained from childhood in “the art of Georgia ghost stories,” his work stays true to that narrative backbone, while grafting onto it elements of pop culture, satire, and sexual transgression. It’s as if an unexpected ill wind has blown across a campfire session of one-upsmanship tales, burning eyes and leaving a thick layer of soot in its wake.
With this upcoming Halloween gig marking his fourth collection of original material (joining well-polished gems like the anti-misogyny “Pussy Panic” and the pro-homo “Glory Hole”), Darkly has amassed an impressive body of meticulously constructed supernatural morality tales packed to the gills with Vaudevillian one-liners that induce groans, horrific images that elicit gasps, and psych profile character sketches that expose motives both sinister and pure.
Joining the Crypt Keeper, Svengoolie and Elvira in the pantheon of creepshow hosts who delight in executing campy framing devices, the actual stories that give a Darkly show its pulpy marrow snake their way toward karmic comeuppances straight out of an Aesop fable or a “Twilight Zone” shocker. Everybody gets what they deserve, and nobody emerges unscathed — except in rare instances when, for example, Darkly provides his own spin on ’80s teen slasher flicks. Unlike the victims stalked by Jason Voorhees or Freddie Krueger, it’s a lack of sexual activity that puts his characters in harm’s way. Excess is rewarded, but only if it’s in the service of staying true to your nature.
That’s one of the hard-earned lessons in Darkly’s new show. Thoroughly enjoyed by this reviewer over the summer (at a Dixon Place world premiere just before its well-received Edinburgh Festival Fringe run), “Trigger Happy” is a four-story collection cut with winks and nods that only slightly dilute the potency of outrage directed at America’s weakness for violence, excess, and complacency. Time-honored boogeymen like werewolves and ghosts spread fear and mayhem alongside more recent horrors like mass shootings and reality television.
Throughout, Darkly recites long observational and narrative passages at a breakneck pace, gliding with ease through the alliteration-heavy text (an acquired skill that owes as much to the actor’s work ethic as it does to Ian Bjorklund’s corset-tight direction).
“Their disco dancing became a bloody ballet, a spray of crimson confetti and tracer fire the color of claret,” he says in the opening story “Silver Dollar” (in which a self-loathing ex-military man’s PTSD figures into the tale of “lycanthropy, anxiety and southern fried sodomy!”).
Elsewhere in the show, “Final Girl” begins with the discovery of a once-vivacious starlet in her final role (as a headline-making corpse!), then provides the backstory — a cannibalistic tale in which Hollywood and the insatiable viewing public feed on one of their own.
The plucky heroine of “American Apparel” is a drag queen rat named Bidet, who temporarily reclaims an iconic gay bar that’s fallen victim to changing times. “Craigslist, Manhunt and Scruff,” notes Darkly, “took cruising off the barstool and on to the Internet and abruptly, unexpectedly, the Poppycock was padlocked.” When the titular retail behemoth moves in, it does so as a “corporate cancer” growing “inside the hollowed husks of hallowed LGBT hostelry.” The real terror comes when former bar patrons return, as gentrified zombies marching “one by one, to a massive meat grinder where rag dolls chewed them into commercial chum.”
Destined to walk the earth with a sweet tooth for underdogs and a short fuse for ambivalence, Darkly uses these blood-soaked tales of horror and revenge as a vehicle for his own eccentric (but righteous) brand of social, political, and sexual activism. With a singsongy voice that chugs its way toward the falsetto range and dissipates into a breathy vapor once it reaches that peak, we’re invited to laugh at his fey nature, even mock it on occasion — an effective ruse that comes back to haunt, when sudden bursts of violent imagery transport the audience into an unsettling realm where nervous laughter is the only sane response.