The transcendent tension of Tammy Faye Starlite

Tammy Faye has gazed into the cultural abyss, emerging with enough new material for at least 19 nervous breakdowns. Photo by Albie Mitchell.
Tammy Faye has gazed into the cultural abyss, emerging with enough new material for at least 19 nervous breakdowns. Photo by Albie Mitchell.

BY TRAV S.D. | Few things in this life are as pleasurable to this observer as a Tammy Faye Starlite performance. I first became aware of her in the late ’90s, when she began performing her faux Christian country character at nightclubs and performance art spaces around town (mostly Downtown venues, where her envelope-pushing antics get the most traction). As crazy as the right wing is in our times, it can sometimes slip our memory how unprecedentedly loony they seemed during the age of the Contract with America, the Culture Wars, local amateur militias, and religious cults. Tammy (whose real last name is Lang) tapped into that craziness with a literal vengeance, her satiric wit as sharp as a dagger made of crystal.

Supernaturally gifted as a writer, actress, and singer, she’s always seemed to me the foremost heir apparent to Andy Kaufman. She gets into the head of a character, usually an insane one, and stays there. In subsequent years she used both her musical gift and her shape-shifting ability to inhabit a series of popular show business characters, from Nico, to Marianne Faithfull, to Mick Jagger, performing them to great acclaim at places like Lincoln Center and Joe’s Pub.

But the times have gotten crazy again — perhaps crazier than ever. Indeed, there could be no more auspicious time to bring back “Tammy Faye Classic,” the country Tammy Faye, to skewer the times with her bodacious barbecue fork. And so she has, with “Tammy Faye Starlite Presents Holy War 2016: The New Regime,” in weekly repertory at Pangea through the end of October.

And not a moment too soon: Tammy Faye resurrects the perfect persona for our troubled times. Photo by Bob Gruen.
And not a moment too soon: Tammy Faye resurrects the perfect persona for our troubled times. Photo by Bob Gruen.

We caught the show at its opening on September 16, and it was everything we were hoping and longing for. Clad in virginal white and clear plastic platform shoes that add four inches to her height, she looks as though she were already dressed for the heaven she is convinced she belongs in. But she proves to be a devil in the guise of an angel. She comes out swinging with a version of “El Shaddai,” a Christian song written in Hebrew and mostly associated with Amy Grant, who recorded it in 1982. It’s the perfect song for this act. Lang is Jewish; undergirding her ire when she plays Starlite is an omnipresent current of tension between the two religions. One of my favorite moments is when she started speaking in tongues, with a good deal of Hebrew flavoring the babble. And how can we forget that the 1969 glam-Christian classic “Spirit in the Sky,” which Tammy covers was written by a man named Norman Greenbaum?

Lang lampoons the dominant culture with an outsider’s resentment, which is somehow also always mixed with a connoisseur’s appreciation. Country artists (or many of them) have a knack for uttering the most unfortunate things while making genuinely beautiful music. This is one of Lang’s strong suits no matter what character she’s playing. She quite fearlessly “crosses the line” again and again, garnering guffaws and gasps in equal measure. And while the song lyrics are impressively witty, so is her patter, which goes on to epic lengths at times, as though every song contained Barbara Jean’s nervous breakdown in the movie “Nashville.”

It’s never a Tammy Faye show unless she goes too far at least once, and you can hear a pin drop in the audience (though I hasten to point out that I cheer her on every time she does it). In the performance I saw, she compared the pneumonia-filled lungs of “Mr. Hillary Clinton” [sic] to the falling Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. She dials the right-wing rhetoric all the way to Nazism in a song called “White as Snow.” Her character radiates the self-hating misogyny so peculiar to women on the American right, reflected by her cover of Jeannie C. Riley’s “The Rib,” and her self-penned “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus.”

Hebrew flavors the babble, when this Christian country singer speaks in tongues. Photo by Albie Mitchell.

Platitudes about family are invoked ad nauseam, even as a palimpsest of incest, pedophilia, failed marriages, promiscuity, drug abuse and alcoholism is plainly visible beneath. She claims her mother had 16 babies in eight years, and that she lost some of her six ex-husbands to divorce, others to NASCAR. Much like Sacha Baron Cohen (of “Borat” fame), another artist she resembles (at least in this respect), she delivers it all straight and with the utmost seriousness. She is playing this part, and never undermines it with self-conscious attitudinizing or apology. It’s on you to get what she’s really saying. That’s why satire is so risky.

Much of the joyous experience of her show comes from the crack band behind her: David Dunton, piano; Richard Feridun, guitar; Eszter Balint, fiddle. On the night I caught them, Lang’s husband and sometime collaborator, Keith Hartel, subbed on bass and sang a number as “Jim Rob,” a part normally performed by Eric Drysdale, who will be performing most of the run. The band is as witty as Tammy is, vamping as long as they need to under the patter, and punctuating the lyrics with just the right Nashville touches, but never slammed in your face with a sledgehammer.

For you see, the central irony of Tammy Faye Starlite is that one of the most “tasteless” of performers around is gifted with extraordinary taste. Seeing her show during this harrowing election season is a wonderfully cathartic antidote to this season of hypocrites.

“Tammy Faye Starlite Presents Holy War 2016: The New Regime” is performed at 7pm, Fridays, Sept. 16, 23, 30 and Oct. 7, 14, 28. At Pangea (178 Second Ave., btw. E. 11th & E. 12th Sts.). For reservations ($25 cover, $15 food/beverage minimum), visit pangeanyc.com.