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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Sunday Feature: Gardenia (FTA, 2011)

(Gardenia, Photo credit: Luc Monsaert)

The Art of Drag
Gardenia is poignant meditation on beauty and age
By Richard Burnett (printed from Fugues with permission)

I have been to just about every major drag event in London, Sydney, Paris, New York, New Orleans, Vegas and Montreal, and as drag culture has morphed into a universal phenomenon, it is evident it has also become increasingly homogenous and mainstream. There are no longer any great differences between, for instance, French and English drag performers (if there ever were), except for perhaps in Quebec where audiences still really love their clown-like drag queens like Montreal icon Mado La Motte  – so-called when she started her career at Poodles nightclub on the Main back in 1987 because patrons there thought she looked like a mutt.

“She looks like a clown!” my six-year-old brother Skye told me as he pointed to Mado at his first Gay Pride parade in Montreal over a decade ago. When I told Mado about it afterwards, she replied, “He’s right, I am a clown!”

(Gardenia; Photo credit: Luc Monsaert)

So I wanted to know if I’m the only one who’s noticed the homogenization of drag culture, and so I asked Alain Platel of Belgium’s Les ballets C de la B (for ‘Les ballets contemporains de la Belgique’) about it. Platel is a self-taught choreographer and co-director (with renowned Belgian scriptwriter Frank Van Laecke) of the smash new European musical Gardenia, a play about six middle-aged and elderly cross-dressing men, which makes its much-ballyhooed North American debut at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques on June 1.

So we witness a musical that is essentially a meditation on age and beauty, as real-life gussied-up queens dance to the music of Aznavour, Dalida and Ravel. 

Inspired by the Spanish film Yo Say Asi, which is 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 – dressing in drag one last time after a faded transsexual announces the closing of the Gardenia cabaret. So we witness a musical that is essentially a meditation on age and beauty, as real-life gussied-up queens dance to the music of Aznavour, Dalida and Ravel. 

“The one thing I have observed is the difference between young audiences and old audiences when it comes to appreciating drag culture in the drag and gay scenes,” Platel points out. “Our performers are between 57 and 68-years-old and the period in which they were young – in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – you just cannot compare to what we’re living [through] now, how gay people and transvestites are celebrated today. There are still some societal problems [about accepting gay and drag culture] today, but it was much, much harder to live your life openly and honestly 50 years ago.”

Photo Credit: Luc Monsaert)
Wikipedia states the term “drag queen” was first used in print in 1941, but there is a longer history of drag in the performing arts. Cross-dressing has played a huge role in the social history of theatre, notably in Shakespearean plays, indeed in all Elizabethan theatre, where all female parts were played by young men in drag. By the late 20th century drag conventions were changing radically, with the theatrical drag queen presented not as a female impersonator but as a drag queen.

The first Broadway play to deal openly with gay life and drag culture was Mae West’s 1927 play The Drag, and it never actually opened! That’s because after West’s first Broadway play Sex (which she also wrote, produced and directed) was closed down by the NYPD in April 1927 (West was sentenced to 10 days in jail for obscenity), the Society for the Prevention of Vice vowed to ban The Drag if West attempted to stage it. Over 80 years later, La Cage aux Folles and Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical have become huge Walt Disney-esque successes on Broadway. 

Clearly something profound has happened to drag culture and society as a whole...

“You still get the flavour that has always been part of Priscilla, but it’s not quite as down and dirty [as the original 1994 movie], not as in your face so much so that you might pull back,” Priscilla’s above-the-title lead producer Bette Midler told The New York Times. “It manages to have all the fun of camp without too much of the dark side of camp and drag. Which for Broadway, I think, is a good thing.”

Clearly something profound has happened to drag culture and society as a whole – not to mention Bette Midler, given the raciness and profanity of her own stage persona, The Divine Miss M.

Alain Platel (photo courtesy FTA)
After Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical premiered at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney in 2006, the production moved to London’s West End, then made its North American premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre last October before opening on Broadway at NYC’s Palace Theatre this past February. The central character Mitzi is portrayed by renowned Tony-nominated American stage actor Will Swenson, who recently told me, “I’ve always loved drag. I love any art form that requires fantastic craft. You can’t fake good drag. It’s incredibly precise. The more choreographed and well thought out, the better. It’s really an extension of dance or mime. And it’s incredibly hard to do well.”

So Swenson did a lot of research and rehearsing to get his drag show-stopping numbers just right. "It was pretty straightforward actually. Our choreographer gives us the movement and the sentiment, and we try to juice it up as much as we can. I have gone to a few drag bars and interviewed a few lovely drag queens to try and mine any helpful hints or tricks that might help.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s most famous transsexual Nina Arsenault says the mainstreaming of drag culture has dulled drag’s cutting edge. So productions like her one-transwoman show The Silicone Diaries (a tour-de-force retelling of her life) have become – as America’s one-man gay-AP Rex Wockner recently noted – “the new way to terrorize the bourgeoisie. Gay is so passé.”

Arsenault in Silicone Diaries
Or as Nina told me herself, “I don’t differentiate between gay people and straight people anymore. I differentiate between queer people and normative people. Normative are those who buy into mainstream ideals of beauty, of where they should live and what is an acceptable lifestyle. Because gay people can now get married and adopt kids, a lot of gay people have become [conservative] too – and in some ways just as judgmental as straight people used to be. That’s an unfortunate development in [today's] gay community. I just don’t fit in.”

So as I sat watching Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre before it moved on to Broadway – where it is currently getting rave reviews – as a gay man who enjoys drag, I felt curiously neutered. Which is why Gardenia – while melancholic – is such a breath of fresh air.

“Frank and I decided we just couldn’t have a show with men dressed in drag for 90 minutes, so we first asked the cast to dress as men,” Platel explains. “That gave us something to build on and it’s really the secret of the performance. It lets the audience connect with the characters as people first, then we see them as performers.”

"All kinds of people everywhere have fallen head over heels for Gardenia, even fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who was so crazy about the performers that he came to see them three or four times!"

The company has performed Gardenia over 120 times to rave reviews across Europe since its premiere in Ghent, Belgium, in June 2010. And while it is performed in French, Gardenia crosses cultural and linguistic lines and ultimately is a universal meditation about age and beauty.

“All kinds of people everywhere have fallen head over heels for Gardenia, even fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who was so crazy about the performers that he came to see them three or four times! He even made special gifts for each of the performers,” Platel says. “And recently in Barcelona our cast met the stars of Yo Say Asi, the movie which inspired Gardenia. That was very special.”

Platel is clearly happy his play has connected with audiences. “Gardenia is not just about age and beauty, but also about how you decide to live your life and whether it is right for you. There is also a lot of melancholy in this play, for sure, but there is also much joy and celebration. Personally, I watch our cast – many of whom had no theatre experience before this play – and here they are touring the world! They are not retired, sitting at home knitting – they are touring the world! It’s very rewarding to witness their joy.”

Gardenia at the Festival TransAmériques, at the Monument-National’s Salle Ludger-Duvernay (1182 St-Laurent), June 1 to 4 at 8 p.m. nightly. The audience can also meet the cast after their June 2 performance. Tickets: $34 to $52.

You can read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online

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