In my experience of drag shows, you generally get one of two things: the hardcore "illusion" drag where the girls really, really pass as women, and usually reference classic female vocalists in their performances; or "chaos" drag, where the girls and their peformances have more in common with the Grand Guignol tradition. In San Francisco you have Marlena's as the epitome of the first sort, with Charlie Horse at The Cinch on Friday nights delivering horror, chaos, blood, indeterminate gender assignment, jokes about drug abuse, and performances that would be way too weird, gross, or just plain out bizarre for Trannyshack. Overall, I much prefer Charlie Horse to just about any other drag show I have ever seen.
The "Carnival of Freaks" show this past Friday was typical Charlie Horse: Anna Conda as a Marlene Dietriech-eque ring master, Frieda Laye and Juanita Fajita as conjoined twins singing a duet, a boy who really wanted to be Bjork performing a track from her new album, and another performer who wound up covered in (hopefully fake) blood that s/he continued to wear for the rest of the night. Tod Browning's Freaks was playing on the bar TVs, and the relation between those sexual outsiders and the ones in the bar was obvious; everyone performing and watching, was, in relation to the world outside that bar, a freak, so why not have some fun with it?
The performances and costumes at Charlie Horse are not as polished as what you'll find at Tranny Shack, which has become a veritable institution on the level of Beach Blanket Babylon, but there is a punk rock aesthetic (underscored by the indie rock spins of DJ Dirty Knees) that makes the Charlie Horse shows more immediate and thought-provoking. The girls at Trannyshack are certainly Queens, having risen up through the ranks of drag society and now reached the highest possible levels of hairstyle engineering, but the performers at Charlie Horse seem much more willing to take risks in their performance of drag, and the personas that they create are not as much about a representation of the feminine, or even the creation of a definitive personality, as they are vehicles around which they can build a performance. In this way (and I mean this in the best possible way, lest I get a stiletto heel through the eye) they are more like clowns than queens; not the watered-down children's TV version of clowns, but more like the jesters who can amuse and disquiet us at the same time.
Charlie Horse is a fun time; I enjoy going there on a Friday night when I want to have an easygoing drink, sit on the back deck and smoke, see a few friends or maybe chat up somebody new. But Charlie Horse is also where I can go to see peformances that make me laugh, and sometimes even make me think.