Though Blackouts, UK-based drag artist Dickie Beau’s New York solo debut, is ostensibly set in the future, it spends most of its hour-long duration steeped firmly in the past. Initially inspired by his fascination with Judy Garland Speaks!, a collection of private spoken-word tracks Garland recorded as notes for a thwarted autobiography, Beau has crafted the first half of Blackouts, an exploration of celebrity, technology, and aging, as a means of exploring his conversations with the late Richard Meryman, the Life reporter responsible for conducting the final interview with Marilyn Monroe before her death in 1962.
Beau, who specializes mainly in spoken word lip-synching, initially appears in a plain white jumpsuit. We see a reel-to-reel player, and a rotary phone, as well as a desk, a suitcase, and a trunk. Beau, in dim light, begins by lip-synching a snippet of Judy Garland’s dialogue from her 1963 film I Could Go On Singing: “I can’t be spread so thin, I’m just one person. I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me.”
Next we’re introduced to Meryman, famed for his celebrity interviews written and crafted as monologues, a process he describes in taped conversations Beau recorded in New York before Meryman’s death in 2015. Meryman describes his interactions with Monroe – her chronic lateness, the effect of drugs on her demeanor, her star quality, and her untimely death.
Beau, whose physicality combines traditional drag (Lypsinka’s brand of camp celebrity homage) with mime and performance art, allows the recordings to speak for themselves at times, and at others jumps in to lip-synch, embodying at various points the voices of Meryman, Marilyn Monroe (and at one point donning a blonde wig and white dress to recreate the iconic Seven Year Itch skirt moment), Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich. Unlike Lypsinka, Beau’s tone is serious. Blackouts uses its subjects as a means to an end in exploring his fasciations as an artist, rather than for easy laughs, despite occasional moments of levity. Video elements supplement his performance, which succeeds in placing a laser-focus on the pitfalls of fame – the loneliness and delusions, and also the high cost of media attention.
While the Monroe segment is intriguing, Blackouts deepens and gains momentum as Beau shifts his attention in the second half to Garland. Dressed in a garish ruby red Dorothy Gale-Baby Jane-Raggedy Ann costume, Beau lip-synchs to Garland’s private tapes, exposing her deep loneliness, narcissism, and denial (“When my number is up I want a new one,” she says at one point, tellingly).
The common, if somewhat tenuous, thread that binds Beau’s idols together is technology – Monroe’s fascination with the role of humanity in a space-race age, and Garland’s struggle with her Dictaphone (“This machine isn’t gonna get me either”). In our digital world, Blackouts‘s visual of reels of tape force us to step back in time and listen closely to the cries of our (or, well, Beau’s) idols – to examine what it is to know a person, if such knowing is indeed possible, and what role adoration had in the demise of both Garland and Monroe. If Beau’s methods as a performer are ultimately somewhat more compelling than the sum of his audio-visual ideas, it’s a pleasure to grapple with his challenging brand of drag, which transcends historical notions of “female impersonation” or even contemporary RuPaul’s Drag Race convention and attempts something new and exciting by using lip-synch as a window not only into the past but into the future of the art form.