Looking over my notes on Erin Markey’s A Ride on the Irish Cream, an outrageous musical comedy that premiered at New York’s Abrons Arts Center in January, I find this line in all caps and underlined (twice): “dumpster cheeseburger ass.” I can’t remember who said it or why. But reading it weeks later made me laugh out loud. The bio that the artist prefers to give—“Erin Markey makes stuff for stage and video that has music in it”—has the same effect on me.
Directed by Jordan Fein, Irish Cream is wildly psychedelic despite its bare-bones set and costumes. A versatile band deftly navigated the tuneful but meandering score, written by Markey with composer Kenny Mellman and bandleader Emily Bate. Markey also wrote the obliquely mirthful lyrics and dialogue, and stars as Reagan, an adolescent girl in Michigan. Reagan is in a tumultuously passionate romance with Irish Cream, her family’s pontoon boat, which appears in her imagination as a horse. Irish Cream’s intentionally preposterous nonbinary boat-horse identity had a New York Times critic throwing his hands up in frustration.1 Markey and Becca Blackwell, the painfully funny trans actor who plays Irish Cream, are a couple offstage. Their genuine adoration of each other pulses through the mysterious narrative; their natural chemistry sustains the show as Reagan and Cream’s relationship cyclically matures and immatures.
The 90-minute musical is Markey’s most ambitious production to date, but she has been captivating and freaking out audiences for years. Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail (2010), which premiered at PS 122, tells the story of the artist’s post-college stint as a pole dancer. Joe’s Pub, another East Village performance stronghold, repeatedly features her in their “Our Hit Parade” series, where artists perform the top 10 songs on Billboard’s chart. Markey’s creepily intense delivery makes her an audience favorite. The same venue hosted a run of her 2013-14 self-titled production, a musical standup-routine-as-memoir.
Markey blissfully ignores the disciplinary boundaries of performance art, theater and comedy. She often appears in online sketch-comedy videos. One highlight is her recurring role as Madison, a Brooklyn mom who responds via webcam to negative social media comments by snorting rails of cocaine off her baby. Like other genre-blurring comedic performers of her generation, Markey infuses performance-art traditions of tackling identity politics with gut-busting humor. This unofficial comedy movement treats diversity not as a buzzword but as a matter of fact. When I asked Markey if Irish Cream was intended, politically, to be queer, she sipped her coffee and replied, “No. It’s just queer.”