Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters
nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
April 27, 2005
As the audience enters the theatre, Russell Barr, the writer and star of Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters, is standing, dimly lit in full drag, behind a shinny Millar fringe curtain, the kind you might find hanging in a tacky bar or strip club. There is soft background noise playing, which grows louder and louder, more and more ugly, getting closer and closer: people fighting, barking dogs, traffic. The jarring tone is set for Barr's alter ego, Glasgow drag queen Bernice Hindley’s semi-autobiographical journey through the dark underside of Glasgow’s gay and drag club circuit. La Cage Aux Folles it is not. Sharply funny one moment and brutally violent the next, Sisters is a somewhat disjointed peek under the wigs and behind the glitter, at a side of the drag and transgender world that is certainly not peculiar to Glasgow.
The show jumps back and forth between Barr’s childhood in a dysfunctional, middle-class family and the five months he spent as a young adult working as a drag performer and hostess at a nightclub called Gillespie’s. Both worlds are equally disturbing in that way that you can’t help laughing at, and then feeling awkward for laughing. As a very young boy, for instance, Barr has fond memories of sitting on his auntie Norah’s lap at the rugby club, dipping her pearls in her beer and sipping it off. Later, he and a childhood friend would amuse themselves by hiding gunpowder in bits of bread and watching the pigeons who ate it explode in midair.
The gay and transgender world that revolves around Gillespie’s is populated by sinister and psychotic characters like Geraldine, who took GHB, the date rape drug, recreationally; Laura, the shoplifter and bank robber; and Ross, the man Barr was in love with, who regularly put his boyfriend’s head through walls. Between the funny moments about incontinent relatives and wigs catching fire, and the many insane situations that inevitably pervade the lives of serious alcoholics and drug users, there are sinister and dark stories about child pornography and serial rape, and one horrifying and graphic episode about the brutal murder of a transsexual, which Barr was a witness to.
Barr’s stories are colorful and emotional, if somewhat random and unordered. Barr is a captivating story teller, spending much time moving through the audience, showing pictures of the real-life people who make up the stories’ casts. As with all too many one-person shows, though, Barr speaks directly to the audience throughout and simply recounts his many seedy adventures. There are so many rich characters here that could have been brought to life, and so much opportunity for creative movement and staging. Barr chooses instead to either stand or sit and occasionally take sips from a cup of tea. Simply watching a man stand and sit in a bad dress and heals is not intriguing enough to a modern audience. No director is credited here. An outside overall vision of the piece might be just what is needed to make these great vignettes feel more like strong theatre.