Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Triangle makes New York gorgeous

The Portland theater company leaps into the Off-Broadway spotlight with "Make Me Gorgeous!," a bravura one-man show about trans trailblazer Kenneth Marlowe.

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"Make Me Gorgeous!" star Wade McCollum, left, and writer-director Donnie at the post-opening night party in New York. Photo courtesy Don Horn.
“Make Me Gorgeous!” star Wade McCollum, left, and writer-director Donnie at the post-opening night party in New York. Photo courtesy Don Horn.

NEW YORK — It’s a blustery afternoon in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, but Donald Horn is dressed for the beach. Sporting Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a year-round tan, the director and playwright, whose pen name is Donnie, swears the cold doesn’t bother him; still, he feels underdressed.

“I was at a TV interview this morning; I wore a much better shirt,” says Horn, waiting for the doors at Playhouse 46 to open. Although Horn’s play Make Me Gorgeous!about the life and times of LGBTQ+ trailblazer Kenneth Marlowe—is running through Dec. 31, the door is locked to the Off-Broadway theater: Horn hadn’t been given a key. 

Wade McCollum as Kenneth Marlowe in "Make Me Gorgeous!" Photo: Maria Baranova
Wade McCollum as Kenneth Marlowe in “Make Me Gorgeous!” Photo: Maria Baranova

Actor Wade McCollum, who plays Marlowe, crosses the street, wearing more seasonally appropriate attire. It’s been a busy day: the TV interview, prep for an upcoming Off-Broadway show and a commercial shoot. When Horn began working on the one-person script, he wrote it with McCollum in mind. The pair first worked together in 1997, when McCollum, fresh from acting conservatory, starred in shows at Horn’s Portland theater company Triangle Productions. Once a favorite at Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre, McCollum has since performed on Broadway and London’s West End. 

Finally, a stagehand takes mercy and the doors are unlocked. The theater is styled like a cabaret, with velvet curtains and bistro tables. Black and white photographs of drag queens hang on the walls. Crew members sweep the stage. As Horn discusses the show’s journey, McCollum stretches and occasionally interrupts to clarify a point, speaking softly to conserve his voice. 

McCollum twirling onstage. Photo: Maria Baranova
McCollum twirling onstage. Photo: Maria Baranova

“New York is a different beast than Portland,” says Horn, taking a seat in the house. “In Portland, I have my own theater, I know everybody. Here, I don’t know anybody.” 

The show was first staged in Portland in 2020. Since then, the script has gotten a makeover, with feedback from Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro. When two Triangle patrons passed away, they left the company a generous sum, alleviating the money question. Still, Horn had to find a publicist, a manager, and a theater to mount the show. That the subject matter was a little-known figure from queer history helped. “Our PR people said, ‘We’re gay and we don’t know about this guy!’” says Horn. “This person has a wonderful story.” 

McCollum under the lights at Manhattan's Playhouse 46. Photo: Maria Baranova
McCollum under the lights at Manhattan’s Playhouse 46. Photo: Maria Baranova

Kenneth Marlowe was born in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, and lived a bohemian life. His eclectic resume includes stints as a private hairdresser, female impersonator, newspaper columnist, hustler, and madam of a gay prostitution ring. “Kenneth was voraciously curious for new experiences,” says McCollum. “I’ve written down in my dressing room: addicted to discovery.” 

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Later, Kenneth became Kate, throwing a “Ball to End all Balls” to fund gender-affirming surgery. She documented her life story in books and magazine articles, most notably Mr Madam: Confessions of a Male Madam. Horn parsed through the writings, sometimes calling up the relatives of luminaries. Lucille Ball’s daughter, for example, confirmed Marlowe had done her mother’s hair. “There are still discoveries,” says Horn. “People come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I knew Kenneth.’”  

Wade McCollum, dressed to kill. Photo: Maria Baranova
Wade McCollum, dressed to kill. Photo: Maria Baranova

Horn’s script is primarily anecdotal: tales told at cocktail parties, yarns spun over post-work cigarettes. The play opens with McCollum, as Marlowe, waxing nostalgic in a 1970s San Francisco apartment. In Des Moines he discovers the gay semiotics of handkerchiefs. In Los Angeles’s Pershing Square, he learns the art of hustling. In Indianapolis, he strips in mob-controlled nightclubs. For 90 minutes, he confides in the audience, like speaking to old friends.  

The script is saturated with innuendo, performance puddy for McCollum. When Marlowe recalls flirting with an early crush after baseball practice, he gives a loaded compliment: “You got two balls, Dick. That’s hard.” Such puns are a dime a dozen, and McCollum makes off with a king’s ransom. Marlowe’s life was full of challenges—poverty, assault, displacement—but the show maintains a glass-half-full outlook.

Opening night Nov. 15 was a high-energy affair, and critical reception has been positive. The show’s been featured in Time Out magazine, on CBS New York, on Theaterscene, with a post-opening night cartoon of McCollum by noted Broadway caricaturist Ken Fallin, and elsewhere. As a “Talkin’ Broadway” reviewer noted, it’s a “high-spirited play with a big heart and a fun-time vibe.” 

Wade McCollum sitting onstage at Manhattan's Playhouse 46, happily in his element. Photo: Maria Baranova
Wade McCollum, happily in his element. Photo: Maria Baranova

How were the performances going? “I’m taking stock of how things are ringing,” says McCollum. “If a laugh isn’t working, I’ll give it a couple more tries before it goes to the chopping block.” Sometimes, jokes that landed in Portland don’t work in New York. “There’s a big difference between getting to 46 Street and 8 Avenue in New York, and 67 Street and Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Oregon,” says McCollum. “In Portland you have parking lots.” As if to prove his point, a woman enters the theater moments later, letting out a heavy sigh. 

Shortly after five, McCollum flees to his dressing room. Horn heads to the foyer, where T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the play’s title are for sale. When you’re Off-Broadway, you get merch. “A lot of people have been buying the mugs,” Horn says, but he’s most excited about the play’s companion piece: a book he wrote about Marlowe’s life, which includes anecdotes cut from the play. “We’re telling history,” says Horn. “He did so many things that were out of the norm for that time.” 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Max Tapogna writes about theater, music and culture for Oregon ArtsWatch. His writing has been published in Bloomberg Pursuits, Document Journal, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, Crosscurrents Literary Magazine and more. As an actor, Max has had the pleasure of performing with companies like Shaking the Tree and Broadway Rose. Originally from Portland, Max currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
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