December 16, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Sicks in the city

Ben Schatz, second from left, as Rachel in the Kinsey Sicks. (Photo courtesy of the Kinsey Sicks)

Ben Schatz

‘Oy Vey in a Manger’

Through Jan. 2

Theatre J

1529 16th Street, NW

$15-$60

Looking for a holiday show devoid of dancing toy soldiers and that miserly old Englishman? You’re in luck. The Kinsey Sicks have brought “Oy Vey in a Manger” to Theatre J.

Known for their irreverent wit, over-the-top drag and outrageous musical parodies (beautifully sung “dragapella,” and not lip-synched), the ladies have set their sites on the season with devilish takes on old favorites like “Oh Hoey Night,” “Jingle Bells, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” “The Twelve Steps of Christmas” and “Crystal Time in the City.”

Ben Schatz, who performs with the group as Rachel and writes the lion’s share of the Sicks’ songs, explains that while the show, whose plot turns on the plight of four drag queens facing foreclosure on their manger/home, has been around for a few years, “this time it’s different – this time, it’s good.” He jests, but in truth the group has reworked some dialogue and added to the sometimes politically charged score.

As a Harvard undergrad in the late ‘70s, Boston-born Schatz was heavily involved in both theater and gay activism (“And now and again could even be found in class.”). He went on to Harvard Law School and after graduating, started the first national AIDS legal program. Later he served as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) and was appointed to President Clinton’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

In many ways, Schatz’s drag persona is a reaction to his prior work experience: “She’s bad, bad, bad, but if you asked her she’d say ‘I’m gorgeous and tasteful and if you disagree then kiss my ass.’ There’s always been a little Rachel in me, but when I was employed as a respectable homo, I had to keep my mouth shut.”

During those buttoned down years, Shatz occasionally donned drag with friends and sallied forth into the night to blow off a little steam and remember who he was. One such outing marks the group’s genesis. Rather famously Schatz and pals attended a Bette Midler concert in drag.

“We were the only drag queens there besides Bette,” he says. “We got a lot of attention and were even approached by a promoter who wanted us to sing at a party. Inspired by the show, we stayed up all night singing and discussing the possibilities of forming a group.”

Soon after, the newly formed Kinsey Sicks (a play of words on “Kinsey 6,” the end of the Kinsey Sexuality Rating Scale defined as exclusively homosexual) made their debut on a street corner in the Castro, San Francisco’s gayborhood.

“We were shocked to make $37. Over 15 years later we’re still working and we ask for at least twice that,” Schatz says.

Comprised of four stock drag characters — raunchy Rachel, controlling Winnie (Irwin Keller), dim Trampolina (Jeff Manabat), and gold-digging Trixie (Spencer Brown) — the Kinsey Sicks boast a loyal and diverse fan base. Co-founders Schatz and Keller have been with the group since its inception in 1993 while an infrequently changing roster of actors have taken on the other roles.

“When a new performer takes over a part, we encourage them to find their own version,” he says. “We like everyone to put his own print on the character.”

Harvard lawyer to presidential appointee to nonprofit executive director to singing drag queen: By most accounts, that’s a pretty kooky career trajectory, but according to Schatz it’s not nearly as extreme as it might sound. For several years, he was both working his day job and playing dates with the group.

In fact, while Schatz was still Medical Association’s director, the Sicks performed at one of the association’s events.

“I was terrified,” he says. “Our show is really quite naughty — particularly my character — and I had no idea what the response from my colleagues would be. Well, they loved it and for me that was very liberating. I suddenly realized that my work as a performer was just as important as anything else I’d ever done. It struck me that I could reach more people using humor and music than I ever could through a speech.”

“If you’d told me when I graduated from Harvard that I’d be singing professionally in drag and living in Mexico I would have thought you were completely out of your mind,” Schatz says. “I’ve managed to surprise myself and that’s a great accomplishment in life.”

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