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The spectacle of Counterfeit at the Victoria, and the emotion of a Castro reading of "A Christmas Memory"

Wednesday, Dec 24 2003
My Christmas memories are few and far between. I could say that I remember last year, but it would be more truthful to say I know what I did: There was assuredly a stack of movies to watch and the smell of spiced tea wafting from the kitchen. My young siblings, who look nothing like me but bear all the most notable family traits of my mother's side, undoubtedly wrestled across the big, well-worn couch that dominates their house, barreling over me and my quiet pile of reading material with shrieks of laughter and pointy fingers that burrow between tender ribs. My mother might have murmured something indistinctly authoritative, waving a hand of vague disapprobation, but it's more probable she just pulled an old satin comforter over her head as if to say, "If only I could disappear." My father no doubt was snowboarding (as he will be this year). I was likely invited to join his thrill-seeking pursuits in more snowy states, but I chose, as I do most years, the warmth and vagueness of this little house between a marsh and railroad tracks where my mother made a home long after my departure. It's a very nice place to visit for Christmas, filled, even as it is, with memories that are not my own.

I do remember one Christmas drinking wine on the beach with a boyfriend from England whose delight at the madness of drinking wine on the beach at Christmastime made it seem worthwhile. And I remember another Christmas many, many years before, high in the mountains of Oregon, in a huge drafty log cabin without electricity or hot water, where the stars on the other side of my bedroom window seemed so bright and cold they could freeze my thoughts. It had been a difficult winter, for more reasons than the stranded pickup truck and the snow piled high outside, and I had finally written my father, asking that he take me away. I didn't sleep at all that night, at least I didn't think I had, but when I arose at dawn the wood-burning stove was already hot, and the kettle was simmering, and the tree -- a pretty little thing my aunt had cut down with a chain saw a few days before -- had been utterly transformed. Covered in tinsel and ornaments and chains of cranberries and corn and topped with a cherub and strung with what seemed a thousand tiny lights, each carefully, patiently circled in angel hair -- that tree shimmered like magic. I don't remember the sound of the gasoline generator that must have accompanied the twinkling, but I do recall thinking that if all the faeries my aunt carved into the deadwood around her land were real, she must have enlisted their help to create that tree. The first vision of it wholly obscured the gifts and hugs and food that would follow, as well as the tears and anger that would swell in that cabin in the wake of my father's and my abrupt retreat from Jump Off Joe Creek Road. I have never seen, before or since, a tree as lovely as that.

"Our tree last year was rad," exclaims Sean Claire Treidler, a pale, willowy boy ensconced in latex and black-and-silver fun fur. "We decorated it with condoms and airline liquor. Colored condoms and tiny little bottles of vodka, whiskey, and Kahlúa tied with little red bows. They sort of clinked together if you bumped into the tree, and when friends came over we could offer them a nip off the tree. Unless they were a really good friend; then they could have a cocktail and a rubber."

Treidler and his companion, a small woman in a tattered tutu and striped stockings, purchase a couple of boxes of candy at the concessions counter and disappear behind the double doors of the Victoria Theatre like two missing extras from A Nightmare Before Christmas. They are not alone in their sketch-gothic finery. The crowd gathered in the long-faded opulence of the 95-year-old theater for Vinsantos' holiday spectacle, Counterfeit, is awash in high style and black lace.

"It's December," purrs Jill Tracy from behind a piano on the lip of the stage, "and, if you're like me, you're teetering on the edge somewhere between sentimental and suicidal."

The crowd titters appreciatively, clearly at home in the dim, ruddy wash of light that just illumes the stage.

"I told Vinsantos the only [holiday song] I know is about a suicide that took place on Christmas Eve in 1941," says Tracy in a voice that is like the inhalation of clove cigarettes. "He said, 'That'll be perfect.'"

The ivories tumble, and Tracy creeps through a Christmas requiem about a man found in a hotel room with nothing but a sextant by his side. It seems that even at the end, he was trying to find his way by the stars.

A grainy, black-and-white "home movie" flickers to life on a screen overhead: Happy young parents sit on a couch bouncing their infant in the air. Cut to the smiling face of the swaddled child. The child falls to the ground.

Vinsantos -- the child grown -- enters the stage in a sequined dress and characteristically macabre clown face. He sets one nightmarishly tall stiletto heel on top of the piano and begins to play, accompanied by his violin-laden sextet, the Sixthe Toe.

"I should've been a dancer," he sighs and rumbles, "but I didn't have no steps."

The dark, languid ballad is followed by others, interspersed with surrealistic, often darkly funny, cinematic chapters in a life riddled by misfortune and circus-performing parents: the misguided attempts at tightrope walking, a doomed love affair, a high-heeled shoe stuck in trolley car tracks, a wig blown off in gale-force winds on the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Suzanne Ramsey does a brilliant turn as Vinsantos' stage mother -- all satin stripes, ruffles, and fishnets -- while the star's own son, Christian Seamus DeFonte, portrays a young Vinsantos and Fauxnique appears as an impressionistic twin, waltzing across a tear-stained stage. Flowers are given to the audience and taken back again. Hearts are broken. Dreams are smashed. And, in the end, Vinsantos rises on his 4-1/2-foot-tall black stiletto heels to ask the audience members what is real in their lives. The music swells, and, in the crowd, a small blond girl crawls off her mother's lap and begins to twirl through the aisle.

"My mother used to read 'A Christmas Memory' to me every year," says Gwyneth Hansen, standing outside the Castro Theatre, where "A Hed-Wigged Out Xmas" is about to begin. "When her eyes went, I read it to her. She died last year, though. I really want to hear it read. That's why I came."

If Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its creator, John Cameron Mitchell, have amassed many superfans over the years (not the least of whom, Keiko Tabeya, flew in from Japan one month early, only to realize her mistake, return home, and rebook her flight in time for the Castro holiday show), there are more than a few people in this crowd who have come solely for the reading of Truman Capote's childhood tale. And the theater is prepared for it. Festooned with giant red garlands and dancing snowflakes of light, the hall has never, in all my days, seemed so festive. After a parade of holiday wigs in the shape of snowmen and menorahs and a cavalcade of musical guests (including Heklina, Matthew Martin, and Lee Arturo Galster), Mitchell climbs into an overstuffed easy chair by a blazing fake fireplace, and the oversold house falls as silent as snow.

"Imagine a morning in late November," he begins in a soft Southern whisper. For the next 50 minutes, it is as if the entire crowd has decided to hold its collective breath. No chairs creak. No wrappers crumple. No one whispers or rises to take a bathroom break. There is nothing but the sound of Capote's velvet prose tumbling across the stage: "Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke."

It is not until the last page, when "a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim, 'Oh my, it's fruitcake weather,'" that I feel wetness on my face and the tug of another Christmas memory long forgotten. Embarrassed, I take a moment to compose myself, only to discover the house is alive with the sound of sniffles, and the barrel-chested bears seated to my right are buried in each other's beards.

"I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven," concludes Mitchell, closing the book. And for three full beats, the house remains as quiet and as full as a heart can be.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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