"Return to the Garden of Allah," written by Ian Bell and directed by Scott Bradley, opens tonight at Re-bar, 1114 Howell St., Seattle, and runs Saturday, Sunday and Thursday-Sunday through April 22 ($15; 206-323-0388).
Seattle's Open Circle Theatre has always gone its own offbeat way - mounting plays by the obscure Russian dramatist Eugene Schwartz, staging maverick rock musicals, and now delving into gay cabaret history, falsies and all.
Tonight, the fringe company, which usually performs in its own pocket-size venue in a Boren Avenue warehouse, moves to the nearby Re-bar tavern-theater to unveil its most ambitious production yet: "Return to the Garden of Allah."
Scripted by Ian Bell and staged by Open Circle artistic director Scott Bradley, "Return to the Garden of Allah" is a semi-fictional re-creation of a famous underground Seattle cabaret from the 1940s - the first such gay-owned establishment in the city's history, and one of the first in the country.
According to Bradley, the show was inspired by the 1996 book "An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle," written by local author Don Paulson with Roger Simpson and published by Columbia University Press.
Via oral histories and some remarkable photos, the book chronicles the 10-year history of the club, which Fred Coleman and Frank Reid opened in 1946 in the basement of the now-defunct Arlington Hotel on First Avenue.
A theatrical history buff, drag performer, and collector of gay and lesbian film and literature, Bradley was captivated by the volume.
Says the lanky, 33-year-old actor-director, "It was fascinating to learn about what an intriguing, decadent gay culture existed here right in mid-century.
"What also amazed me was how the story of the Garden of Allah encapsulates the birth of post-war gay and lesbian culture, along with the swan song of variety and vaudeville-style entertainment."
Garden of Allah shows were definitely not about lip-synching and celebrity impersonations. They were full-scale revues, with "prima donna" divas crooning pop songs of the day, elegant strip-tease numbers, dance routines, and comedy bits that included the ever-popular Two Old Bags From Tacoma - a pair of seasoned drag comics trading double-entendres.
"The performers had grown up in vaudeville and burlesque," Bradley says. "Some had traveled as women, passing as female in all-girl revues and even as Rockettes. They were cloaked, because at the time cross-dressing was a crime in some places."
Though San Francisco and other cities had hosted such openly transvestite shows as the Jewel Box Revue without incident, the Garden of Allah was unique.
"First of all, it wasn't under mob control like most of the popular clubs in other big cities," notes Bradley. "It also drew a very mixed gay, lesbian and straight crowd, and was a real hit with locals, soldiers and tourists alike."
The Garden of Allah also enjoyed the protection of Seattle policemen who, according to Paulson's book, received regular pay-offs from the owners.
"There was a police matron in the club every night, who made sure nothing untoward occurred," Bradley reports. "Men couldn't dance with men, though women could dance with women . . . No public displays of same-sex physical affection were allowed. If you tried that, you got bounced."
To evoke the ambience of the club and its place in gay culture, the show alternates Allah-style club acts with dressing-room scenes depicting the personal lives of actual performers - including ultra-glamorous drag diva Jackie Starr (played by Andrew Tsakos), lesbian comedian Nick Arthur (Jennifer Jasper) and female impersonator Skippy LaRue (Will Lutey).
Now in his late 70s, LaRue shared some of his Allah memories with Bradley and Bell for the show. Paulson also gave the project his support and blessings.
By the time the cabaret closed, says Bradley, mass entertainment had changed and the Cold War climate was less tolerant to open expressions of homosexuality.
"One thing Ian and I want to do as gay artists is to show that long before the Stonewall riots in 1969, there were these gay pioneers coming together to create a group identity," he says. "I also wanted to put some of the legitimacy back into drag entertainment, by integrating it into the theater, where it all began."