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Mark Shenton: A busman’s holiday in historic Cape Cod where theatre is thriving

Lucie Arnaz at the Crown and Anchor. Photo: Mark Shenton Lucie Arnaz at the Crown and Anchor. Photo: Mark Shenton
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Provincetown, a historic town at the farthest tip of Cape Cod where the pilgrim voyagers aboard the Mayflower first made landfall in 1620 before settling across the bay in the place they named Plymouth, is now a destination for pilgrimages of a rather different sort.

As Cole Porter so memorably put it in the title song to Anything Goes: “Times have changed / And we’ve often rewound the clock / Since the Puritans got a shock / When they landed on Plymouth Rock.” The Puritans would certainly be in for a shock if they returned to P-town, as it is universally known, today. This is a town, after all, where, as Porter also says in the same song, “But now, God knows / Anything Goes.”

And it’s why, for the last decade, my husband and I have returned here year after year for our main summer holiday. And this year, we’ve come here for most of the summer: a stay of nine consecutive weeks.

That’s partly a response to seeking to re-orientate my life and take things a lot slower, after a health crisis last summer (I had a stent put in this time last year, after the right artery to my heart was found to be 95-99% blocked; I dodged not only a bullet but a major heart attack).

Provincetown is just the place to do it: a little slice of heaven, not so much gay-friendly as LGBT-dominated, where everyone is free to be utterly and wholly themselves. There’s a beach right in front of our apartment door, but also a bustling village atmosphere, where the local population expands from a year-round total of less than 3,000 residents to more than 60,000 in the summer.

With easy access to Boston by fast ferry across the bay in just 90 minutes (driving takes considerably longer), it’s remote but not isolated. I’m heading across to Boston next week for the pre-Broadway premiere of a new stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (and hoping for better things than the West End’s current Strictly Ballroom).

But Provincetown itself has a thriving artistic and theatrical community. Commercial Street is full of art galleries exhibiting local artists, drawn to the stunning landscapes; and it was here that both Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams lived and wrote many of their masterpieces (there’s the annual Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival at the end of September to celebrate his work and others). Even now, Tony Kushner has a home here.

So there are plays (Terrence McNally’s 1995 Tony-Winning play Love! Valour! Compassion! is being revived at the local Provincetown Theatre) and musicals (Hair is being a full revival by the Peregrine Theater Ensemble).

Christine Ebersole and Seth Rudetsky. Photo: Mark Shenton
Christine Ebersole and Seth Rudetsky. Photo: Mark Shenton

There’s also a galaxy of Broadway stars in town – in a spectacular interview-and-song series called Broadway at the Arthouse, now in its eighth year, that’s programmed by artistic director Mark Cortale with chat and accompaniment by Broadway insider Seth Rudetsky, and in another season from producer Rick Murray at the Crown and Anchor.

I’ve been to the first three shows at the Arthouse, which were intimate and revealing evenings with Broadway stalwarts Judy Kuhn (the original Les Mis, Chess and Fun Home), Adam Pascal (Rent) and Christine Ebersole (42nd Street, Grey Gardens, War Paint), and seeing each in a theatre that seats only around 150 people feels very special. Among those still to come are Will Swenson, Sierra Boggess, Liz Callaway, Emily Skinner, Stephanie J Block, Marilyn Maye and Alice Ripley.

Then there’s the season at the Crown and Anchor, where I’ve already seen Lucie Arnaz (one of the original stars of The Witches of Eastwick in the West End), with further appearances to follow from Trump musical satirist Randy Rainbow, the great comedy writer and performer Bruce Vilanch, and Broadway stars Anthony Rapp and Linda Eder.

Drag and comedy are also mainstays in P-town: lesbian comic Sandra Bernhard has just blown through town, and drag superstars including Varla Jean Merman, Jinkx Monsoon and Dina Martina do extended annual residencies.

As Steve Desroches, entertainment writer for Provincetown magazine, wrote in a season preview: “As a town, Provincetown is one of the most important locales for this art form, which is of course receiving unprecedented attention due to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Some of its alumni, such as Raja and Trixie Mattel (at the Post Office Cabaret), Bob the Drag Queen (at Town Hall) and Jaymes Mansfield, Mrs Kasha Davis, Pandora Boxx and Darienne Lake (at Pilgrim House) are in town this year.

I’ve already seen one of the shows you only expect to find here in P-town: drag star Aurora Sexton doing a wicked impression of Melania Trump in a one-hour show called Let Them Eat Cake! – Diary of a First Lady, in which she is cast as an unwilling, resentful victim of her own desire for a quiet but privileged life and her husband’s more ambitious plans (and multiple betrayals).

I can’t wait to see some more of what P-town has to offer. But also, of course, to relax a lot.

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