imagine dennis the menace with copper-red hair and stretched like a thin rubber band to 6-foot-3, and you have talented writer/performer Damien Atkins.He shows up for the interview wearing a skin-tight purple top and a pair of brown-toned houndstooth pants. He admits he bought the pants because they match his sofa.
Atkins is looking a little hassled, having hurried in for the day from Stratford, where the company is workshopping his new script, Good Mother, for production next summer. His one-man cabaret, Real Live Girl, opens at Buddies this week.
Atkins played Gary, the selfish, manipulative, 14-year-old hooker in Shopping And Fucking. He tackled several dozen characters, including Elmer Fudd, an anally obsessed airline hostess and an Edmonton woman who went to high school with kd lang in his stellar solo piece, Miss Chatelaine. The gay coming-out and coming-of-age piece proved he could change onstage personas as fast as Mayor Mel gets into mugging mode for a photo op.
Real Live Girl lets Atkins draw on his skills as a musical theatre performer as well as his dead-on comic characterizations.
In some ways, the musical segments of the show -- when Atkins performs songs that were written for women, from well-known and obscure musicals -- are the most fascinating. Alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein's I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and Arlen's I Had Myself A True Love, he performs unfamiliar melodies like Diary Of A Homecoming Queen (from Craig Carnelia's Is There Life After High School?) and The Blond Song, in which he races through 30 stereotypes of blonds, from bimbos to ball-busters.
"I did some of these songs at last year's Where The Boys Are, the gay counterpart to the lesbian evening Strange Sisters," offers Atkins, sitting in the poster-lined dressing room at Buddies. He's sipping the Diet Coke -- as if he needs to be calorie-conscious -- that he's stolen from general manager Gwen Bartleman. "Director David Oiye offered me a chance to develop the material into a full show.
"I want to explore what's feminine about a man, especially a gay man, and in doing so look at what defines a man."
Atkins leans in, looking at me seriously with his bright eyes and raising his voice to be heard over the loud fan in the room.
"What's important is that I do the material straight -- there's no drag, no camp other than what's inherent in the material. Let's see how these songs resonate when a man sings them. Does the singer -- and the audience -- have the same experience as when a woman warbles them?"
Interspersed between the songs, he'll treat audiences to a pair of mythic lesbian goddesses, a woman who's been cheated on one too many times and another who's recovering from a stroke.
Atkins adds that a chance remark by performer Clinton Walker pushed him toward the material. Off to a hot dance night at Tallulah's Cabaret, Walker said he loved that he could come to Buddies and be all girly for a night.
"So this show is a chance to let it out and see what happens. The more you shut the door on what's inside you, the more it bubbles away unhappily. I'd rather be empowered than resisting."
Serendipitously, Atkins spent this past year in dresses exploring women while he was part of the Stratford company. In Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, he played Tom, a boy actor in Shakespeare's company, where boys played female roles He understudied Brent Carver's cross-dressing Ned in the same production, as well as the Player Queen in Hamlet.
His Tom was a moving creature, sensitive and delicate while demonstrating that he could look out for himself. Atkins also gave Osric, the court minion whose first appearance is three hours into Hamlet, a political edge rather than playing him as the traditional comic fop.
Stratford premieres his nine-character play, Good Mother, next year, due in part to the efforts of actors Seana McKenna, who's performing in it, and Diane D'Aquila. An early version of the piece won Atkins the Elliott Hayes Playwright Development Award from the festival, and a few months ago the script copped the $25,000 Prism International Prize.
The Stratford press release states that he's 23 -- possibly the youngest playwright whose work has been staged at the festival -- but this makes Atkins cackle.
"I'm really 25, and they don't seem to know it," he laughs, his rubbery face moving all over the place. "Even Richard Monette said, "I thought you were only 20!'" he adds, giving a good imitation of Stratford's artistic director. Atkins admits that he can do pretty good impressions of almost everyone in the Stratford ensemble.
"My 26-year-old boyfriend at the time e-mailed me to ask if, since I'd lopped years off my age, he could drop back to 20 himself," he remembers.
Atkins deejayed all the Stratford parties -- "I was the one who had all the kickin' gay music" -- and couldn't believe that all the straight men wanted to hear songs like It's Raining Men and I'm Coming Out.
"Even I wouldn't play stuff like that," he grimaces. firstname.lastname@example.orgREAL LIVE GIRL created and performed by Damien Atkins, directed by David Oiye, musical accompaniment by John Hughes. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander). Tonight (Thursday, December 7) through Saturday (December 9) at 8 pm. $20. 975-8555.select bio
2000 Real Live Girl; Hamlet; Titus Andronicus; Elizabeth Rex; Fiddler On The Roof; Where The Boys Are
1999 The Alchemist; Macbeth; The Tempest; Shopping And Fucking; Miss Chatelaine
1998 Twelfth Night
1997 The Chocolate Soldier
1995 Into The Woods