What is typical for Long Island theater? Let’s see… revivals of familiar musicals, Norm Foster comedies, summertime Dial M for Murder-style chillers and remounts of Broadway plays after they’ve closed. What’s less familiar on LI stages? How about a gay, ex-junkie, homeless thief and prostitute performing a solo show filled with his versions of Madonna’s songs?
Yup, that would be different. And it’s actually happening Sept 23 at Guild Hall in East Hampton where J. Stephen Brantley is offering his Chicken-Fried Ciccone. It’s about cleaning up, getting straight (but gay) and moving on as a performance artist.
Brantley’s story has a Behind the Music arc. Raised in Texas, he came to New York to be an actor, fell in with a bad crowd and even badder chemicals and entered what he described as a downward spiral of “stealing, tricking, picking up discarded needles.” Leavening the ugliness, Brantley peppers his tale with hits of that period by one Madonna Louise Ciccone, whose outspokenness, fashion sense and diva-tude continue to make her a gay icon. The surprise of Chicken Fried Ciccone is that Brantley puts the material girl’s tunes into different contexts—often in country-western-twang style—and mines them for very personal meanings. He plays the songs straight, not as parodies, but does imbue them with his personal style. “I do a Johnny Cash-flavored ‘Secret,’ where I talk about my first taste of heroin,” he told Pulse. “‘Get into the Groove’ is mashed up with ‘Erotica,’ and I do ‘Vogue,’ not as a dance track, but a down-tempo anthem of personal transformation. The lyrics are more complex and meaningful than people realize.”
Now clean and sober for 11 years, Brantley believes creating CFC allowed him to continue on a path of self-discovery he thought he had already completed. “When we got into rehearsal and started kicking the script around, I began to look at my life in ways I hadn’t. I was asking the kinds of questions actors ask about their characters, but this time the character was me. Going back to some of those places is intense, but ultimately cathartic.”
Reviewing the show at this year’s FRIGID New York Festival in Manhattan, NY Theater Now’s Martin Denton praised “the potency of Brantley’s storytelling. Though the style is casual, intimate—even sly in places… his depiction of the effects of dope and addiction on his body, mind and life are unforgettable.”
Brantley, who now shares a house with his partner in Southampton, is quick to express his pride in working with director David Drake, whose own autobiographical play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, was running when Brantley first moved to New York. “It became a kind of benchmark for gay solo artists. So for me, years later, to have my own piece directed by this master of the form is, as they say, better than drugs.”