nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
September 25, 2008
"Well. . .different," I heard a lady remark to her companion as she exited the Vineyard Theatre, having just taken in the unmistakably different Wig Out! Directed by Tina Landau and written by up-and-comer Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote last season's Public Theater hit The Brothers Size), Wig Out! presents the complicated relationships within a drag house before and after a competitive "ball," hosted by a rival drag house.
Why is Wig Out! so "different"? It's not just a play about drag queens—it's a play and a drag show, complete with outrageous costumes, glittery eye shadow, cheeky lip-synching, and skillful (and, at times, raunchy) hip-hop dancing. At the ball, the drag queens, donning their color-streaked makeup and purple frocks (gloriously created by Toni-Leslie James), flaunt their stuff for our approval on a slick runway that juts into the audience. Set designer James Schuette has transformed the Vineyard into a club, featuring multiple levels and platforms adorned with sheer curtains and disco balls. If the audience had never been to a drag club, they pretty much had now.
Indeed, the strongest attribute of Wig Out! is its intense theatricality, which McCraney cleverly conceives and Landau executes with flourish. Take for instance Eric, the lone outsider of the drag world (played by Andre Holland with equal parts of curiosity and trepidation), who has his first "Dream of Drag," after a sexual encounter with drag queen Ms. Nina (performed by Clifton Oliver as a coy seductress). In the sequence, Eric clutches his sheets as scantily-clad muscle men emerge, flexing their muscles and contorting their limbs in the flashing strobe lights. Daniel T. Booth, a figure on the New York drag circuit known as "Sweetie," slowly descends to the stage in a leather bodice and robotically lip-synchs to Jefferson Airplane's blaring "White Rabbit." Spectacle? You bet.
But the theatricality likewise extends to McCraney's rhythmic language, littered with cunning puns, most of them too dirty to print. (One clean witticism? As a drag queen admiringly squeezes a man's flexed muscle, she quips, "I do enjoy my second amendment, yes!") Bizarrely, through all the cursing and slang, the dialogue sometimes takes on a mockingly Shakespearean tone, especially with all the talk of drag "houses" pitted against each other in ancient rivalry. McCraney even offers a winking parallel to the chorus of Greek theatre with The Fates 3, an actual chorus, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, Angela Grovey, and McKenzie Frye, that harmoniously sings tongue-in-cheek narration and sassy commentary.
It makes sense that Landau was attracted to this work, as it is similar at times to the work of her frequent collaborator Charles Mee, who also experiments with stylized dialogue, intertwined song and dance, and sheer spectacle. Like much of Mee's work, Wig Out! feels structurally like a collage. Unfortunately, in this case, that collage-like structure makes it challenging to become heavily involved in any of the many storylines, steeped in stereotypical sexual betrayal and hastily-drawn unreciprocated love. The flash and splash—whether within the wily jibes or the vibrant visuals—tend to keep the viewer at a little distance.
As an example, this focus hurts in the case of Lucian and Rey-Rey, the Father and Mother (i.e., the leaders) of the house. The unsympathetic Lucian does not want Rey-Rey to walk in the ball because of her age, and in response, Rey-Rey begs him to let her walk and promises to step down as Mother if she loses. Nathan Lee Graham as Rey-Rey displays the past-her-prime queen's utter desperation while, holding her chin high and throwing her shoulders back, still keeping her pride in tact. And Erik King, fully recognizing Lucian as the play's bona fide villain, doesn't move, but creeps with slimy sexual power, preying on the vulnerabilities of everyone within his jurisdiction. Sadly, the tension of their intriguing storyline gets defused, and King and Graham are denied the room they deserve to explore other facets of their characters.
As a result, Wig Out! may not be a completely satisfying play. Still, it certainly is worth doing, and it certainly is worth nurturing a young writer as imaginative as McCraney. Anyway, sometimes it's nice to just be different.