Denver Center caters to a different crowd with ‘Drag Machine’

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Five drag queens, a drag king and a go-go dancer aren’t necessarily common sights at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Maybe that’s the reason the colorful lineup is drawing unprecedented crowds to the Jones Theatre, one of the smaller rooms at the sizeable cultural complex in Denver that includes an opera house, a classical music hall and multiple theaters. “Drag Machine,” the latest show in the “Off-Center at the Jones” series, has sold out several performances during its first two weeks. Indeed, the demand has been such that organizers have added two extra shows to the run — the production will wrap up after additional shows on Dec. 7 and 8.

It’s a heartening response for a show designed to draw a new kind of crowd to the complex.

“There’s an art of drag,” said Stuart Sanks, who appears in the show as Shirley Delta Blow. “A lot of times we see it as campy entertainment, but I think in the right way, drag can be used to educate. You can also make a pretty substantial statement.”

“Drag Machine” draws on all the resources of the Denver Center Theatre Company to make that statement, one that includes background on the history of the gay rights movement, pop music and even theatrical conventions in Elizabethan England. The lessons are delivered in a larger-than-life fashion. Like any good drag show, the five lead performers don glitzy dresses and lip-sync along to danceable pop tunes. They interact with audience members, venturing into the audience and ribbing them with good-natured sassiness.

“It’s really fun. We’re not vulgar, we’re not cross, we don’t seek people out to make fun of them,” said Justin Baker, an Aurora resident who plays Daphne DeCoteau in the show. “It’s lip syncing, there’s a little bit of dance in it.”

Unlike the typical drag shows at bars like Hamburger Mary’s, however, “Drag Machine” features the full infrastructure and scope of a professional production at the Denver Center. Fog machines, weather effects, intricate set pieces and deluxe sound effects all figure in the show. Even the lobby and the bathrooms have been decorated as part of the show (there are restrooms for “Drag Queens” and “Drag Kings”).

“We thought that the idea of a time machine would be really interesting. It’s not just a bunch of pretty dresses,” Sanks said. “We wanted a little bit more content, a through line. A story was what we were looking for.”

The story comes courtesy of an imagined time machine. The show is loosely based around the concept of drag performances throughout the decades. Performers tackle tunes by Peggy Lee and Nancy Sinatra; production designers and lighting staff from the Denver Center Theatre Company have built an intricate stage set-up to transport the audience to the Roaring Twenties and the not-so-roaring 1980s. Performers talk about the origin of the term “drag” in Shakesperean England (the convention stemmed from abbreviations in scripts for “dressed as girl.”)

“I thought that would be a good device; to make it theatrical and not like a lecture,” said Emily Tarquin, who wrote the basic outline for the show. “We could give the drag queens and king a chance to still be themselves in the context of a more formal play. It’s still loose. I created a script, but it’s a script that leaves a lot of holes for improv.”

Tarquin, who curates the “Off-Center” series with Charlie Miller, said the show has provided a bridge to a new target audience, a crowd that hasn’t typically been addressed by traditional theater organizations. That mission is integral to the “Off-Center” series, which is entering its second season at the Jones.

“It was started at the Denver Center to attract an audience that is going out in Denver and not seeing theater. We call it theater that feels like a night out,” Tarquin said. “It’s programming that attracts the next generation of performers and artists.”

The cast of “Drag Machine,” who’d been performing in shows at Hamburger Mary’s for years, served as an ideal troupe to fulfill that mission, Tarquin added. For the performers, the venue at the Denver Center has offered a bigger stage and a bigger crowd capacity. It’s been a venue where they can take their art form to the next level and incorporate a message into the glitz, glamor and wacky humor.

“At Hamburger’s Mary, we do it in a little cabaret space … It’s a very, very small stage,” said Baker, who’s been performing for more than two years. “At the Jones, it’s a big auditorium. People are actually watching the show. It took a little bit of time getting used to.”

But along with the rest of the cast, Baker has gotten accustomed to the bigger scope of the performance. In fact, he’s planning on studying performing arts formally when he returns to college next year.

Drag performance has had a similar effect for Sanks, a trained actor who performed in Broadway shows and toured in professional productions before trying his hand in the art form a few years ago.

“For me, it was just a chance to try something new,” Sanks said. “It was a marriage between something I was curious about and something that I feel I’m naturally pretty good at — improvisation, interacting with an audience. It was something that was fun.”

“Drag Machine” will run Dec. 7 and 8 at the Jones Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 13th and Arapahoe Streets. Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org