PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — Varla Jean Merman has a good arm, and when she threw her hairpiece into the swimming pool the other evening at the end of an increasingly frenzied number in her cabaret show, it landed on the surface just right. Then it floated there, inert and disheveled.
“Everyone loves a wig in a pool,” Varla said, like a breathy midcentury hostess reassuring her guests. “It looks like an Irish setter’s in there, taking a nap.”
The pool deck of the Crown & Anchor, a hotel and nightlife complex known for its drag shows, is not where Varla — or Jeffery Roberson, the performer who plays her — had planned to spend the season, in front of an audience on folding chairs. Under a lighting truss framed by tall trees in full leaf, the stage there is a new addition: an improvised attempt to salvage this coronavirus summer by moving at least some entertainment outdoors.
This artsy, eccentric beach town on the tip of Cape Cod — long-ago stomping ground of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill; longtime safe harbor for queer folk — ordinarily pulses with activity in July and August. This year, though, it’s hitting a low-tide mark in what should be its high season.
Art galleries are open, and so is the pirate museum. Whale-watching boats are running, and restaurants seat diners inside and al fresco. But tea dance at the Boatslip is on indefinite hold, the cabaret is empty at the darkened Post Office Cafe, and no revelers spill out of bars at 1 a.m. to throng Spiritus Pizza until 2. The nightclubs are closed; so are bars, unless they’ve morphed into restaurants. Either way, 11 p.m. is last call.
And with indoor entertainment spaces shuttered, only two establishments — the Crown and Pilgrim House — have shifted to open-air stages since that became an option, just after Independence Day. Neither offers shows the customary seven nights a week.
Visitors are here, but in diminished numbers. That’s to be expected, given that millions nationwide are unemployed because of the pandemic, and that travelers to Massachusetts from 42 states must quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.
So there is a curious quiet along Commercial Street, Provincetown’s narrow main thoroughfare, which would normally be clogged with festive, free-spirited masses.
In this town of 3,000, which as of Wednesday had reported just one new coronavirus case in the previous 14 days, tourism is the main industry, bringing in more than $250 million in 2019. Yet concerns about economic survival coexist with vigilance about the virus — not least because the population includes a significant number of older residents and the state’s highest rate of people living with H.I.V.
To the comedian Judy Gold, who has owned a second home here since 1994 and has been performing on local stages even longer, there is a clear link between the community’s memory of the 1980s and ’90s and its mindfulness now. When people ask her what it’s like in Provincetown these days, she has a simple response.
“We went through the AIDS crisis here,” she tells them. “Everyone’s wearing a mask.”
Uniting for survival
Along Route 6 on Cape Cod this summer, electronic signs in town after town flash variations on the same public-health mantra. Cover your face. Practice social distancing.
At the Provincetown border, a sign on the median repeats those entreaties — and adds a third that might tug at your heart, if this is a place that you love.
“KEEP PTOWN SAFE,” it says.
Doing that has required confronting some difficult realities. Mark Cortale, a producer and artist manager who programs the Art House on Commercial Street, said he hoped until mid-May that he could open its two intimate stages for a 10th season. The audience, he thought, could be capped at half capacity, with jauntily masked blowup dolls filling empty seats.
Then Kristin Chenoweth, whom he had booked for two August performances in the 700-seat auditorium at Provincetown Town Hall, called to postpone until the same weekend next year. And Cortale’s principal client, Seth Rudetsky, who hosts the starry Broadway @ the Art House series, told him bluntly that those concerts had to move online.
“He was like, ‘Wake up,’” Cortale said. “‘Are you watching the news?’”
Determined not to be foiled completely, Cortale hunted around for an outdoor space for performers who were eager to play Provincetown this year. Maybe an old amphitheater in the Cape Cod National Seashore would do, if he could rig up a generator?
In late May, on Facebook, he spied the solution in a post by Rick Murray, the owner of the Crown: a photo of a poolside outdoor stage, with socially distanced seating.
Entrenched rivals, the Art House and the Crown both draw acts from the worlds of drag, Broadway and cabaret. Even in a good year, the window for making money is tight in Provincetown, and competition can be brutal. But when Cortale proposed putting some Art House performers, Roberson and Gold among them, on that stage, Murray agreed.
Their willingness to work together, Murray acknowledged in an interview, “turned a few heads in town.”
Or, as Roberson jovially said, it “probably wouldn’t have happened unless it was the end of the world.”
A strangely different crowd
It may not be the end of the world, but for now at least, the pandemic has altered Provincetown — changed the mix of people in its streets, dimmed its spectacle, dulled its sparkle.
“You know what it is?” Gold mused the other afternoon, from a safe social distance in an airy room at the Crown. “It’s the magic. The magic is gone this year.”
No show tunes waft through the windows of piano bars; no dance music throbs from the clubs. Performers in drag don’t weave through sweat-slicked crowds on bikes and motor scooters, calling, “Come to my show!” And the artists who were always out sketching — they’ve disappeared, too.
Gold misses all of that, and with it the cherished sense of a place where straight people understand that they are the exception, not the rule. The strange, skewed thing about Provincetown this summer, she and others said, is how disproportionately heterosexual the day-tripping visitors are.
Town Hall, where Jennifer Holliday, Alan Cumming and Margaret Cho would have played this season, sits silent in the evenings. But its Commercial Street facade stops passers-by in their tracks.
Bathed in blue and red light, it has a caduceus — a symbol for medicine, with winged staff and twined serpents — projected high on either side. The display’s designers, Chris Racine and Shelley Jennings, mean it as a tribute to front-line workers.
It is a striking complement to the plentiful street signs labeled “MANDATORY MASK ZONE,” and to the friendly “community ambassadors” in red pageant-style sashes, whose paid job it is to remind people to mask up properly. Compliance is startlingly close to universal.
The town’s director of health, Morgan Clark, said she was trying to walk the fine line of keeping everyone safe while protecting both their physical and mental well-being. In Provincetown, artistic expression is part of that.
“My favorite kind of movie,” she said, “is where people sing or dance against all odds.”
That’s pretty much what’s happening at Pilgrim House — singing and joking, anyway. The drag artist Russ King, a.k.a. Miss Richfield 1981, ordinarily would be selling out the hotel’s 180 indoor seats. Instead he’s onstage in its pebble-paved parking lot, where the capacity is 56, with social distancing.
Given a cast and crew of four, that means just 52 audience members in a space that David Nelson Burbank, Pilgrim House’s entertainment manager, aptly described as “homey.”
In the course of a normal year, King does more than 100 shows, 60 of them in Provincetown, from Memorial Day to mid-September. This summer, he said, barring any cancellations because of weather or closures because of the pandemic, he will do only 36.
Hard as it is to build audience cohesion when people are seated at a distance from one another and from him, he is grateful to be there.
“I’m really blessed to be employed,” he said.
Over at what Varla drolly calls “the Crown & Anchor Poolside Emergency Theater,” about 80 spectators are permitted at each performance. Most take their masks off once they’re in their seats, to have a drink or a snack, though in my experience on two consecutive nights, there was much less than the state-mandated six feet between audience members in different parties.
Gold and Roberson do solo nights at the Crown, but “The Judy & Varla Show” is their joint enterprise. For that, their microphone stands are placed to keep them two yards apart — and because there is singing, they must be at least 25 feet from the front row. It’s not an ideal way to work: too far from the audience, in too much darkness, to see many faces properly, and without walls for the laughter to bounce off.
So, for them it’s bittersweet — joy and relief at being back onstage, tinged with some frustration. There is also the pang of being forbidden by state regulations from doing meet-and-greets with fans. For Gold, who has a new book, “Yes, I Can Say That,” to promote, there goes the marketing synergy.
But what a ripe time to be among the few performers with a live outlet for social commentary.
In Roberson’s solo show, “Superspreader,” there is a pointed moment when Varla holds up a little white mask and ridicules those who say having to wear one is “ripping away their right to breathe fresh air.”
“Well,” she says, looking out at the crowd, “I remember a time not too long ago in our country where almost everybody in this room was federally prohibited from the right to get married.”
It’s a risky line, because it isn’t a joke. It’s an indignant assertion of what real oppression is, and what’s just selfishness masquerading as righteousness.
The other night, as a soft breeze floated in off the harbor, she let that idea land. Then she turned to her keyboard player, said, “Hit it, honey,” and got on with the show.