Photo: Luc Monsaert
Why they're swooning everywhere
by Richard Burnett
Audiences and critics across Europe swooned over this 90-minute meditation on age and beauty, and at its June 1 North American premiere at the Monument National, it was easy to see why.
Inspired by the Spanish film Yo Say Asi, about the real-life closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona, Gardenia also tells the true-life story of six aging transvestites who have spent their double-lives working as civil servants, nurses and office clerks. After a faded transsexual – played by real-life old-school Belgian transsexual Vanessa Van Durme – announces the closing of the Gardenia cabaret, our transvestites dress in drag one last time and we witness a poignant musical set to music of Aznavour, Dalida and Ravel. And because the cast all used to be real-life transvestites and drag queens in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it is rooted in the real and gives the play real-life edge. This isn't a made-up story. It's for real.
|Photo: Luc Monsaert|
The gravelly-voiced Vanessa Van Durme opens the show dressed in a suit and sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow like she was Marianne Faithful. Then she asks the audience to stand for a minute of silence to “remember those we have lost.”
Then the mediation on age and beauty really begins. The cast of 60-70 year-old drag queens is fleshed out with two young actors, one male and one female, constant reminders of what the elderly performers used to be and what they’ve always aspired to be. The play can be a bit raunchy (Van Durme says of her co-star Gina, “Her ass is like Central Station – it’s open 24 hours!”), a bit poignant (all but Van Durme come onstage dressed as men, and they strip during Ravel’s Bolero, unafraid to expose the ravages of age, and are all dolled up in drag by the end of the number), and they all know how to strike a pose beautifully, freezing mid-number like supermodel mannequins.
While drag itself is a universal language – a combo of dance, mime and good old-fashioned vaudeville acting – if your French is lacking, you will miss bits.
Everything was also beautifully choreographed on a very deep stage – so deep I recommend you buy the cheap tickets in the balcony so you can see the entire stage and the choreographed patterns of the cast (none except Van Durme were professional actors before this) and set (which consisted of nine chairs, a make-up table with two mirrors and a red carpet). Even in one scene cigarette smoke is perfectly choreographed, via precise hand movements and different types of cigarette smoking/puffing.
|Photo: Luc Monsaert|
While drag itself is a universal language – a combo of dance, mime and good old-fashioned vaudeville acting – if your French is lacking, you will miss bits. Most of the dialogue - what little there was of it - was in French. And there are no subtitles. But there are English clips where you will hear Liza Minella as well as Tina Turner, and Van Durme sings one song in German.
The play finishes with the entire cast of aging queens performing one genuine showstopper in a chorus line of sorts, singing along with Judy Garland to a live recording of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Those last minutes when they sing, “Somewhere over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true” - knowing what they all had to endure in their own youth - were absolutely riveting. Here they were on a stage thousands of miles away from home where at their advanced ages they thought they had no right to be. It was so poignant and beautiful I cried. There’s just no other way to describe it: Gardenia is a fucking masterpiece.
Gardenia Directed by Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke
At the Monument national until June 4 at 8 p.m. nightly
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission
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