Drag show sells out with ‘unabashedly quirky and joyful’ performance, legislative commentary

By: - Monday February 20, 2023 6:53 pm

Drag show sells out with ‘unabashedly quirky and joyful’ performance, legislative commentary

By: - 6:53 pm

The House of Mysteries sold out “Shoots and Ladders” two nights in a row. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

The House of Mysteries sold out “Shoots and Ladders” two nights in a row. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

MISSOULA — In the end, Millennial of Mayhem Margaret Murder’s team tossed Chastity Wilkes, clothed in a thick jean skirt and sheen of self-righteousness, out of the wrestling ring, and Margaret Murder claimed the title belt hanging above the ladder.

The theater was sold out, and the crowd cheered.

After all, Chastity was trying to sabotage drag shows in Montana — forever.

If that theme sounds familiar, it’s not by accident.

Chastity Wilkes flexes. Nonetheless, the character who tried to shut down drag shows, played by Charlotte Macorn, lost the ladder match in the House of Mysteries drag show and variety act. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

This past weekend, the House of Mysteries put on “Shoots and Ladders, Webs and Monsters Drag Variety Show” at the Westside Theater in Missoula.

The show featured the roughly one-year-old troupe, at least one first-time drag performer, and a storyline and series of acts directly tied to a couple of bills moving through the 2023 Montana Legislature.

It also featured a theme that might not be quite as familiar — a drag show combined with a pro wrestling “ladder match,” where the prize dangles above the steps. Think fishnets and a prize belt, a neon green crop top, and, of course, a stage rumble.

In short, the House of Mysteries brought fun and laughs to a sold-out audience two nights in a row.

“It’s unabashedly quirky and joyful,” said Sheldon Clairmont, of the Montana Two Spirit Society, who showed up to celebrate queer expression and, as a Salish Kootenai tribal member, deliver a land acknowledgement.


The House of Mysteries formed early last year as a collaboration between founders Charlotte “Charley” Macorn and Heidi J., a couple of Missoula artists who both have backgrounds in drag and performance art, said Macorn, a Missoula comedian and co-producer of the show.

In a tongue-and-cheek opening Saturday, one performer promised the show offered “no social commentary,” but of course, the genre alone drives at the theme of one of the bills advancing this session.

House Bill 359, sponsored by 83 Republicans, would prohibit minors from drag shows (they weren’t allowed at this weekend’s House of Mysteries show unless accompanied by an adult); ban drag shows at libraries, possibly shutting down a popular family event where drag queens read to children; and restrict drag on public property in the presence of minors, among other prohibitions.

It isn’t clear what kind of shows might qualify for prohibition given the definition of drag in the bill:

“’Drag performance’ means a performance that features topless dancers, exotic dancers, strippers or male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” The bill also defines “prurient interest” as “a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”

John DeBoer, director of the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Montana, said there’s a long history of men playing female characters in classical drama, and he shared the reason.

“It was considered prurient for a woman to be seen in public,” DeBoer said.

Long lashes were part of the outfit for at least one drag queen who performed with the House of Mysteries. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

The reversal might be ironic, he said, but nonetheless, the world evolved to allow true representation on stage, and it’s allowed even further to allow all kinds of expression in theater.

“So there’s a long tradition of all different kinds of gender expression in performances across all kinds of cultures in the world,” DeBoer said.

Shakespeare is the No. 1 example, he said. Elizabethan drama always featured men playing women because it was considered “tawdry” to have a woman on stage. 

In popular modern day theater, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was pushed to consider casting non-males in lead male roles, and although it doesn’t appear to have happened on Broadway, women played foot soldiers, in addition to playing lead female characters.

At the Missoula show, quirkiness upstaged gender bending.

Rico Spankx, played by co-producer Heidi J., asked the audience to yell their favorite vowel, and the room hummed in a chorus of “ais” and “ooos.” Ever been shamed? Spankx encouraged fart sounds as the antidote, and the audience blew raspberries.

Chance Leblanc puts makeup on Maddy Halland for a drag and variety show in Missoula. Halland, a comedian, was performing in drag for the first time, and Leblanc helped. “I just know a lot of people who do drag and the amount of joy that it brings,” Leblanc said. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Performers made fun of golf and Olive Garden breadsticks, told stories of sibling rivalry and sang about pain. One dancer recited a poem that talked about having top surgery and “finding home in my own body.” (Gender-affirming care for youth is also the subject of legislation in Helena, although care for youth isn’t typically surgical.)

In red fishnets, Maddy Halland, a comedian and advocate for people with disabilities, delivered a humorous bit about negotiating sex from the vantage of a wheelchair.

Halland performed in drag for the first time this weekend and had one response to proposed legislation related to the LGBTQ community: “I am so happy to be a big gay middle finger.”

People just want to live their lives, Halland said: “Queer folks are already under attack as it is, and trying to come after the most sacred and fun ways we express ourselves is just a bunch of bulls—.”


In the show, Macorn plays the busybody Chastity, who introduced herself as a member of a church of “unconditional love” — “here to tell you God hates you.”

A drag show often means dancing and lip syncing — “which is great. I love it,” Macorn said — but the troupe founders are putting drag to work with other art forms.

Thus, the ladder match, said Macorn, a lifelong fan of pro wrestling: “It was so much fun to be able to live some of these dreams that I’ve had.”

The troupe welcomes all performers, all sexual orientations, including straight artists, and all gender expressions, Macorn said. It gives artists a chance to stretch. (For example, Macorn said: Does a straight person want to perform a drag act? What about while rapping?)

“We are establishing community, both within Missoula, with the larger LGBTQ community, and within those intersections between the queer world and the cisgendered heterosexual world,” Macorn said.

It’s welcoming to audiences, and they’re apparently more than ready for the shows.

Last October, Macorn said the House of Mysteries sold out its first public performance without putting up one poster or doing any advertising.

“It was one of the most startling things in my career,” Macorn said.

(“I made my drag king debut, and I did stage magic.” Stage name? Charles Macabre. Like, Macorn on Macabre — said Macorn.) 

In the Westside Theater, some of the art in the room might have been described as a bit creep-y — the centerpieces of glass jars stuffed with doll parts on the tables — but Macorn, who testified against HB 359, said the legislation under consideration misinterprets drag and those who perform it.

“We are not duplicitous creep-os,” Macorn said. “This is how we express ourselves … and I do it in the weirdest way possible.”

The House of Mysteries drag and variety show at the Westside Theater in Missoula sold out both nights in February 2023. In addition to stage props, it featured table centerpieces. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Bree Sutherland, who worked on props and then was called to stage manage the Saturday show, said she talked to many people the night before who said it was their first time at a drag show and they planned to return.

“There were a lot of people that weren’t in the LGBTIQ community that came, enjoyed it, and will probably continue coming to future drag shows, and I think that’s great,” said Sutherland, a journey level electrician in Missoula.

In the past, Sutherland said it felt like attacks against the queer community stemmed from a general misunderstanding, but today, the dehumanizing treatment to particularly people who are transgender feels purposeful.

Even if they worry on some level about safety for the community, Sutherland said the show is about visibility.

“It’s providing an accepting environment for people to be whoever they want to be and for really combining art, combining the beauty of self-expression, and providing the beauty of comedy into a very dark situation,” Sutherland said.

Interested in the next show? Block out your holiday season, Macorn said: “We are going to be doing something bigger and weirder than anything we’ve done before.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.