Portland’s Carla Rossi delivers dynamic drag comedy performance

Nov. 7, 2021, 9:18 p.m.

As anyone who was at Stanford Live’s Bing Studio on Saturday night will tell you, watching Carla Rossi perform is like watching a chameleon change colors. The drag clown — a title Rossi prefers due to its more gender-expansive and performance-specific connotations — delivered an engaging series of comedic skits, each a testament to her prodigious theatrical and vocal skill. Rossi’s show was largely satirical, taking jabs at pervasive institutional problems with a deceptively cheery tone. Using sonic and visual accompaniments, she portrayed a broad spectrum of emotions ranging from glee to desperation. 

Carla Rossi is the drag character of half-Native American and half-German Anthony Hudson. A member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, he uses drag performance to criticize American systems of race, whiteness and gender. Rossi has gradually gained prominence in the Portland arts scene since her first performances in 2010. She even performed internationally in Canada and Australia during her 2019 solo tour, “Looking for Tiger Lily.” 

On the “Why Carla Rossi?” page of Hudson’s website, he draws a distinction between drag queens and drag clowns. The purpose of his art is not to perform womanhood, which a drag queen might aim to do. Instead, he writes, “I’m more interested in Coyote-style trickery similar to the clown’s objective — a clown says one thing while doing the opposite.” Herein lies the unique satirical spirit of Carla Rossi.

A photo of Rossi on stage in the "Karen" persona
Rossi’s “Karen” persona was complete with a costume, high-pitched voice and no-nonsense fastwalk. (Courtesy of Harrison Truong, Stanford Live)

The first portion of Saturday’s show consisted of an extended “Karen” impression. Rossi was decked out in a blond wig with noticeably grown-out roots, a colorful workout jumpsuit and flashy faux diamond-studded bangles. Grudgingly, she made her way through a perfunctory land acknowledgment, while at the same time professing the tantamount importance of this small act. The audience laughed along to the clever criticism of the insincere, performative activism championed by American institutions.

During a later skit, Rossi’s Karen persona shared stories from her peers in the “Karen support group,” where like-minded women gathered to lament their perceived oppression. They had even made their own hashtag, she said: #NotAllKarens. The juxtaposition between their harmful, often racist actions (e.g. driving a car through pedestrian traffic) and feigned innocence condemned the Karens — and the upper-class white women they embody — in a graceful yet serious manner.

A photo of Rossi on stage with a projector screen depicting a baby
Rossi markets boisterous baby monitors named after the powerful voice of musical theater actress Ethel Merman. (Courtesy of Harrison Truong, Stanford Live)

The rest of the show was marked by a similarly absurd style of performance, punctuated by over-the-top musical numbers and witty breaks in the fourth wall. One segment leveled criticism at both multi-level marketing schemes and unsafe public safety protocols; it catalogued the “viruses” of the Alpha Beta Delta sorority, self-proclaimed #BossBabes aiming to #StartTheSpread. They recruited members to spread viral infections through unsanitized or crowded public places, pursuing their #KillerGoal of #Murder.

In order to balance out her show, Rossi paced the heavier political commentary with more lighthearted, crowd-pleasing satires. Her many other faces included a surprisingly masterful impression of iconic singer-actress Cher, an extravagant musical number about a broken microwave, a tumultuous misadventure with Life Alert and an elaborate Celine Dion dance break.

It was captivating to watch her nimbly transition from character to character, mood to mood, tactfully involving the audience at the right moments. At one point, a handful of people entered the venue late, drawing attention. Rossi merely remarked, “Have a seat! Don’t worry, you’re not being ostracized by your peers.”

Carla Rossi’s colorful, energetic drag show took her audience on a frenetic ride and functioned as an effective vehicle for her poignant social commentary.

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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