Camp and the Art of Being Cole Escola | Playbill

Special Features Camp and the Art of Being Cole Escola

The cult sensation and co-star Conrad Ricamora tell us about the surprising brilliance behind Escola's deeply stupid Oh, Mary!.

Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola Heather Gershonowitz

This article was originally published March 6, 2024, and has been updated to reflect the current Broadway transfer of Oh, Mary!.

Have you heard? There’s a nasty four-letter word going around the theatre district. Shows are being insulted. Egos are being bruised. Pearls are being clutched.

And what is this powerful, horrifying word? “Camp.” Sure, it may have a time and a place—who doesn’t enjoy a cheap laugh now and then. But don’t call it art. It’s far too unserious.

But why is this genre looked down on by so many? Why does the mere mention of it engender such…well, campy outrage from artists wanting their work to be respected as serious works of Art?

“Homophobia,” posits Cole Escola, currently starring in one of New York City’s campiest offerings, Oh, Mary!. It’s an interesting conundrum, especially because at least in this case, camp is selling. A sold-out, multi-extended Off-Broadway premiere downtown has led to a Broadway transfer, to the Lyceum Theatre where the show will open July 11, It may even be Art, if you believe the glowing critical notices and multiple award wins it has already garnered from the Off-Broadway run. Gasp!

Cole Escola in Oh, Mary! Emilio Madrid

Escola, who wrote the work in addition to serving as its star, plays famed first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in a truly demented peek into the final days before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. If that doesn’t immediately strike you as hilarious, you may not be familiar with Escola’s off-kilter sense of humor. Escola’s alcoholic and stage-obsessed Mary Todd—which they’ve said draws from a third-grade knowledge of the historical figure at most—fits right in with their cadre of hilarious lunatics.

Through live solo shows and a number of viral YouTube hits (along with writing for and/or appearing in TV’s Difficult People, At Home With Amy Sedaris, Big Mouth, and The Other Two), Escola has become a queer cult icon, known for finding comedy in some unusual places—and generally in one or more of a variety of wigs. Since some early work as an uncannily authentic Bernadette Peters, they’ve amassed a greatest hits that includes Escola as a mundane former co-worker of a murderer in a fake talking head interview from a Forensic Files-like true crime series, and a delightfully bland suburban mom in a cheery orange juice commercial, driven to family abandonment and a life of crime on the edges of society by out-of-control sugar levels in the leading brand of O.J. Their most recent YouTube hit is Our Home Out West, a half hour-long “pilot” for a fake 1970s-style television western featuring Escola as, along with many other characters, a brothel madam with a heart of gold who becomes a surrogate mother to a queer orphan. And if you can believe it, that last one turns out surprisingly heartwarming (more on that later).

Their comedy is, to put it mildly, high concept—as likely to leave one breathless with laughter as it is to leave someone else scratching their head in confusion.

“It’s whatever I find funny,” evades Escola when asked about their comedic sensibility. “There’s no specific thing that I’m looking for. It’s whatever I find funny, and whatever surprises me.” This ethos led to Escola’s bizarrely hilarious Mary Todd, who longs to return to her life as a cabaret star and is mystified by this “war” business that has everyone around her so troubled.

And yet, Escola is actually on record that camp is not a sufficient descriptor for Oh, Mary!. “I bristle at the word sometimes because it feels like it’s just shorthand for ‘gay,’” they explain. “It gets called camp because I’m wearing a wig, and I’m like, ‘Say more.’”

Cole Escola Heather Gershonowitz

I’ll bite. Camp is, of course, famously hard to define. Even Susan Sontag in her landmark essay Notes On “Camp” failed to reach a real definition over the work’s 58 notes. Ask 10 people, and you’re liable to get 10 different answers. There seems to be consensus around camp involving humor—often stupid and over-the-top—but that’s not a definition.

As Escola was getting at, camp also has a powerful connection to queer culture—the centerpiece of many a drag show and even more private bits between friends. For decades, gay people and their allies have been snickering at, quoting, and even on occasion truly feeling their feels via such camp classics as Mommie Dearest, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Mildred Pierce—and other films that don’t have anything to do with Joan Crawford, too. But then that’s not a definition either.

And so, since no one else seems to be able to figure it out, let me throw my own personal definition into the fray. Camp, to Logan Culwell-Block, is a performance style where nothing matters, but also everything matters, a heightened dual reality that reflects us both at our most vulnerable and our most ludicrous at the same time. Being able to think back on a huge fight and laugh about it? That’s camp. It’s being able to simultaneously affirm that our feelings are genuine and real—and also absurd.

“Yes, yes,” Escola says in response to this definition, granting me permission to use the word to describe Oh, Mary! and much of their comedy in general. “By that definition? Camp. Yes.” Well, I’ve got one supporter, at least.

But this take on the concept is also why my feathers get a bit ruffled when camp gets tossed around as something cheap and tawdry, a guilty pleasure. Particularly in a world that feels increasingly hellbent on boiling everything down to right or wrong, this or that binaries, I’ve come to value living in the gray, contradictory duality of camp as a rather ascended worldview—a gay superpower, if you will. (Don’t worry—everyone else is invited.)

Escola says they first discovered it when they happened to catch Mommie Dearest on TV while channel surfing at age 12. They were transfixed (“It was almost more formative than discovering porn”). And if you’ve seen it, it’s not hard to guess why. The Joan Crawford biopic, adapted from the film star's adopted daughter’s incendiary tell-all detailing a childhood of emotional and physical abuse, is more or less the grandmommy of classic camp cinema in many peoples’ hearts, even though it was filmed in 1981. Reports from the film’s set sound like all involved thought they were making a deathly serious drama. What they ended up delivering was Faye Dunaway in an operatically scaled performance as Crawford, maniacally chopping down trees in elegant ballgowns and whipping her daughter with those dreaded wire hangers in a full mask of Kabuki-esque face cream. And no matter what they intended to make, Mommie Dearest was, and is, truly indelible.

When the film hit movie theatres, it got a surprising reaction: laughter. The response was so unanimous that the studio shifted the ad campaign to sell it as a comedy. And in true camp fashion, if you were to survey a room of gay men on which side of that debate is right, you’d be very likely to end up with results split down the middle. “I tried to rewatch it recently,” Escola says, “and it’s actually really brutal.” One point for drama.

Oh, Mary! digs into this duality before the audience even enters the theatre. Posters outside the Lyceum—one of Broadway's oldest and most esteemed venues, and whose stage has seen the likes of Ethel Barrymore, Billie Burke, and Lenore Ulric, amongst others—declare the work “The greatest play of the generation!” in a ‘40s hand lettered–style font. Escola is pictured in profile, plain-faced and sullen, even. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a revival of a Lillian Hellman play that you forgot existed.

Escola thinks this may have even led to some early audience walk-outs during the play’s preview period Off-Broadway, which featured a similar getup at the Lucille Lortel. “I would hear people in the lobby buying tickets based on the artwork,” they remember. “Like they thought Mary Todd Lincoln was legitimately an interesting character and this was a revival of this great play.” Luckily, it doesn’t take long to get a hint that you aren’t in for a performance of The Heiress. As the lights dim, you get a pre-show announcement featuring Escola as Blythe Danner, scolding audiences to turn their phones off and pay attention.

But to be clear, they weren’t discouraged by the walkouts. According to Escola, it comes with the territory of making their exceedingly specific style of comedy: “It makes me feel punk.”

Conrad Ricamora Heather Gershonowitz

Escola’s co-star on the other hand—stage and screen star Conrad Ricamora—comes to the genre a bit more fresh-faced. Known for his stage performances in The King and I and Here Lies Love along with a run on TV’s How to Get Away With Murder, Ricamora did not grow up watching camp classics. It’s okay—we’ve decided to let him keep his gay card.

But a fairly recent watch of Gone With the Wind—not exactly camp on the whole, but certainly featuring a camp-adjacent heightened acting style that was fairly typical in the ‘30s—had Ricamora marveling at Vivien Leigh’s extremes, or as he calls it, “split-second shifts.” He says he was kind of stupefied by it at first, but then found himself wondering where it came from. “I started thinking about how this was set when women weren’t even allowed to vote, and their general lack of power,” Ricamora says. “Turning to hysterics was sometimes the only option.”

Ricamora’s own understanding of camp, he says, stems from that lack of power and the anger it can induce. Through that lens, Mary Todd becomes an unusually perfect camp character. After all, the lack of information for her in our collective minds—the blank canvas onto which Escola paints their bizarre vision of Mary Todd—stems partially from the fact that the real woman was forced by sexist societal norms to live in the shadow of her famous husband. “It’s such a weird role, First Lady,” Ricamora says. “It feels like such a waste, especially when you read about how so many were told to tamp down their expectations and abilities.”

“Even now,” interjects Escola, “it’s fascinating to see through a modern and more feminist lens the attempt to beef it up and make it something more, but it’s not really. It’s still ‘his wife.’”

That very real untapped potential inspired Oh, Mary!’s very loony version of Mary Todd and her Lucy Ricardo-like yearn for the spotlight. And Ricamora says that thread goes even deeper. “One of the things I identified immediately within this script was this rage that’s running just underneath the surface,” he says. “I really get that.” Ricamora’s Abe and Escola’s Mary Todd do not share a, shall we say, traditionally idyllic marriage—Escola describes them as “kind of like if Lucy and Ricky never made up and it just stayed volatile.”

Oh, Mary! hardly ever lets up on the laughs, but Ricamora says it works best when he plays into that very real furor. “Any time I tried to be funny in the rehearsal room, it didn’t work,” he shares. After all, it can’t be simultaneously real and ridiculous without the reality. And that means that Escola’s very funny script feels less like a collection of jokes than a truly well-thought-out scenario. Sure, it’s absurd, but that dramaturgical integrity allows Escola’s wacky reality to become a sandbox, a set of bizarre but steadfast rules for the entire cast of Oh, Mary! to play within. “I never feel like I’m selling a joke,” Ricamora says. “I’m acting a situation. I don’t have to do much work because it’s all in the writing. I was laughing at my kitchen table just reading the script.”

Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola Heather Gershonowitz

Escola’s story-first mantra is a lesson they’ve learned over past projects that didn’t turn out as they were initially intended—they say Oh, Mary! is “the first thing that I’ve ever made that matches my original idea.”

Our Home Out West proved to be especially illuminating. Things that felt great on the page and in the studio sometimes played differently in the editing room, Escola says. “There were a lot of jokes, especially in the beginning, that are sort of one-offs from these characters you never see again,” they explain. “They’re funny, but then the audience is looking for the story to hook into. Our Home Out West taught me that jokes need to either teach us something about the character or move the story along.”

All of this lets Escola do something pretty remarkable, too. They’re able to find moments of honest-to-God earnestness even in the wildest of contexts. “It’s a balance,” Escola says. “If it’s too many jokes, the audience doesn’t care. If it’s too sweet, or earnest, it gets boring.” Some of the biggest surprises in Oh, Mary! might just be its moments of real pathos. For all her lunacy, you find yourself rooting for Mary Todd to achieve every last one of her demented dreams.

In fact, that very notion was Escola’s earliest entrée into comedy. “I was a very earnest child,” they remember. “I was not funny. I would get laughed at for my earnestness, so I learned to hide. But eventually, I learned to get the laughs on purpose. This play or any of my work now is me being earnest, knowing it’s going to get laughs and doing it in a funny way. But I’ve really felt all those things that all the characters in the play feel.”

Put in those terms, maybe camp is a coping mechanism of sorts, a way to turn one’s trauma into laughs—while still honoring the genuinely painful part of it, too. And when you think about it that way, it’s no wonder camp has found such a happy home in the queer community, particularly amongst those that grew up before Stonewall or the AIDS crisis.

Escola says they used to do a character called the Goblin Commuter of Hoboken, a woman that works on Wall Street who commutes from Hoboken—and just happens to also be a goblin. “It was just me following an impulse that was interesting to me, and it was funny and surprising,” they explain. “Afterwards I realized she represents how I feel in romantic and sexual situations—like a goblin.” Simultaneously absurd, vulnerable, and hilarious: the comic genius of Cole Escola in a nutshell.

Cole Escola Heather Gershonowitz

And if Escola is processing their own shit through the ridiculousness of Oh, Mary! too, they’re all too happy to let audiences laugh at that, as unusual as that might sound. “Hopefully they’re connecting to it,” Escola says. “Maybe they’re laughing at it on a base level, but I like to think that people who have also felt those things connect with that—and that’s why they’re laughing.”

You might think that Escola’s pretty singular comedic sensibility would make them the only performer capable of taking on this particular Mary Todd, but Escola is looking forward to Oh, Mary! having a life beyond this original production. “I wrote this for Donna Murphy,” Escola says, probably only slightly kidding. After all, Oh, Mary! was conceived first and foremost as A Very Serious Play, “the greatest of the generation!” Why not let a two-time Tony winner have a crack at it?

“In one of our early conversations, [director] Sam Pinkleton said to me, ‘I want this play to seem like Cole is doing it now, but next week Mare Winningham is stepping into the role,’” remembers Escola. “That’s actually what made me realize he had to direct this.”

Escola has already gotten a taste of it via understudy auditions. “I thought they were going to be weird, seeing someone else do my role in front of me,” Escola shares. “But then I realized I also wrote it—and it’s thrilling to watch someone else do the role. Hannah Solow, who’s now my cover, kills in it.”

And it’s not just Mary Todd. From colleges to community theatres and beyond, Escola envisions a future for Oh, Mary! where anyone can play any of the roles, and their wheels are already turning.

“I would love to see Cate Blanchett as Abraham,” says Escola with an almost lustful gleam in their eye. “Seeing her hate for Mary Todd… she might actually be too chilling.” It feels like Escola could take on Blanchett’s loathing, but if not, you know Donna’s ready to go on.

Consider my pearls already clutched.

Photos: Cole Escola and Conrad Ricamora Pose For A Portrait

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