Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
There is a moment in the second act of Whirlwind!, the amusingly resonant one-man, seven-character entertainment at Church Street Theater, when actor Gregory Henderson must transform himself, in full view of the audience, from blowzy, Zantac-popping, fortysomething Peggy Lou, who’s reliving her sorority days through her daughter, into an ancient, palsied gardener named J.K., who totes his wife’s ashes around with him in a fertilizer bag.
As he has been doing all evening, Henderson will strip to undershorts during this transformation, unveiling the rippling torso of a well-toned 33-year-old. So the stage chameleonics cannot be in any way literal. What they can be, though, is theatrically revealing. Off comes the busty body padding, the teased wig, and the crimson smear of lipstick that helped Peggy Lou mesh with her gaudy collection of trailer-park Christmas decorations. On go the raincoat, the cap, and the boots that will make J.K. seem as prepared for monsoons as for the cyclones he’s likely to encounter in Texas’ Tornado Alley.
And what you realize as you watch this metamorphosis is that it isn’t merely a matter of outward display. The costume change amounts to just thata new outfitand while clothes may make the man, they can’t make a character, which is why the actor keeps chattering away as he’s donning his new duds. The chatter almost seems designed to distract the audience from the very artifice and physicality that Joseph Massa’s staging is so intent on highlighting. The suggestion is clear: The clothes are just a crutch; patrons need to look elsewhere for the site of character mutation.
Oddly enough, they’ll find it in Henderson’s eyes. The actor has located a spotperhaps the only spotwhere these two very different characters connect, and has placed it quite visibly in the area between nose and brow. Every one of his actorly transitions between Peggy Lou and J.K.from female to male, from middle age to fogeydom, from dragged-down to trundling-onfocuses audience attention there.
It’s during the pulling off of a false eyelash that his voice alters in midvowel, trading Peggy Lou’s brass for the old man’s nasal breathiness. And it’s in the putting on of J.K.’s glasses that Henderson seems to swallow his teeth, leaving phrases to whistle past withered, empty gums and rattling cheeks. In one squint, the actor conveys more about the infirmities of age than the character will in 20 minutes of shuffling and complaining. Yes, the script is clever, but never mind what’s being said. The manner of its saying is what’s remarkable.
The evening’s other transitions are also pretty sharp. Henderson arrives onstage in pumps and a pink satin blouse as 19-year-old Bitsy, the sort of sororitized bimbo who can squeal, “Oh my God, isn’t that so majorly, way cute?” as a declarative sentence. When Bitsy heads for class, her chirps get modified into the lower, moister locutions of Bubba, her tobacco-chewing, Stetson-wearing Neanderthal of a boyfriend.
Then, in the twitch of an eye, Bubba mutates into Jake, a delicate, stuttering, born-again drummer with a facial tic that could stop traffic. A few moments later, it takes little more than a broad smudge of black lipstick to turn that drummer into Priscilla, a druidlike lesbian who appears to be majoring in a decidedly feminist brand of meteorology. “It’s about time this country had someone predicting sudden storms from a woman’s perspective,” she bellows as she stares down a twister and prepares to leap into a ditch so that errant, tornado-propelled chicken feathers won’t plunge into her eyeball (which is evidently what happened one cyclonic afternoon to her dear departed dad).
As you’ll have gathered, Whirlwind’s primary impulse is comic. Henderson began by creating a stand-up routine in which he played Bitsy and added the other characters (giving each his or her own scene) in response to audience requests. The evening’s structure is about as aimless as that genesis suggests it would be, with each sequence arising naturally, but without dramatic progress, from the one before. Massa’s direction keeps things lively, but it can’t create a real play out of character sketches.
Still, there’s an arc to the entertainment. What begins as fluff about college students deepens into a decently affecting look at the disappointments of their elders. Peggy Lou may continue to dress like a sorority girl at a Christmas party as she pops pills in middle age, but unlike Bitsy, she’s had time to develop some sad rationalizations for being a victim in a world of heroes and aggressors. J.K.’s self-awareness in the autumn of his life makes him far more interesting than the Bubbas and Jakes who mess up his flower beds.
Henderson leaps back to a youthful perspective for his final vignette, a hopeful little sequence in which a scarlet-hotpantsed fellow named Steve, who just may be the world’s most flamboyant drum-major wannabe, resolves to end his losing battle to keep his hips from swiveling. He makes this resolution as he heads out onto the field for final tryouts, knowing it’ll sink his chances. Better he should just acknowledge that he’s gay and get on with life, he decides.
Which qualifies as a life transition. And Henderson (with a lighting assist engineered by Massa) makes sure it stands out in this show, which has been marked by so many startling transitions. No costume changes this time. No vocal changes. Just a shift in posture and a fresh, proud glint in his eye as an insecure lad quits marching in place and starts marching to beat the band.CP