Stage preview: The Rep goes inside the world of drag balls with 'Wig Out!'
September 8, 2016 12:00 AM
Amber Jones, left, as Faith, left, Arica Jackson as Fate, Krista Antonacci as Fay, Jordan Phillips as Rey-Rey and Jordan Bolden as Eric in The Rep's production of "Wig Out!" at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A year before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” splashed the spectacle of a drag queen battle royale onto television screens, “Wig Out!” was onstage to pull back the curtain on the fierce competitors who make drag balls their life.
From his perch at The New York Times, critic Ben Brantley gushed over “this gutsy, pulsing portrait of uptown drag queens and the men who love them” when “Wig Out!” debuted off-Broadway in 2008. The play also had a London run that same year, and that was it.
Enter Tome Cousin, who last season directed another of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s plays, “Choir Boy,” for The Rep, the professional company of Point Park University. Mr. McCraney’s “Wig Out!” will have its regional premiere this weekend at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland.
It was Broadway director George C. Wolfe (“Shuffle Along”) who suggested that Mr. Cousin had the perfect mix of skills and life experience to bring back “Wig Out!” for a new audience. The director, choreographer, performer, author and educator has drawn on his familiarity with the gay club scene in his travels around the world to breathe new life into the show.
Where: The Rep at the Rauh Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Friday (preview today) through Sept. 25, 8 p.m., Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $29, seniors $15, students $10. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com. ASL performance at 2 p.m. Sept. 24.
Note: Crude language and adult themes.
One of the challenges of the script, which Mr. Cousin describes as “very Shakespearean,” is that the playwright suggests music and leaves the rest to the creative team.
“Wig Out!” unfolds over a day that begins at 4 a.m. and is told through the eyes of three narrators who function somewhat as a girl group. Their sound is based on Mr. Cousin’s favorite group, LaBelle — “not Patti LaBelle; the trio,” he emphasized. “I think if another person were to do this who didn’t have experience of the club life or had never been to balls, finding those sounds could be really challenging.”
That sense of history informed musical choices that also reflect “what was on the jukebox the very night of the Stonewall riots,” a reference to the violent aftermath of a police raid of a New York gay bar in 1969.
To bring the production to life, Mr. Cousin’s first call was to Pittsburgh-based costumer Robert C.T. Steele.
“I said, ‘If I take this on, you must do it.’ He has done a massively impressive job for a show that demands not just costuming but really good clothing as costumes,” said the director, who had compliments for every member of his creative team.
Bringing “Wig Out!” to the Pittsburgh Playhouse has helped put Mr. Cousin back on Pittsburgh time after months of travel.
When he’s not teaching or working on a production here, Mr. Cousin might be in Poland or South Korea as directing supervisor for Susan Stroman’s Tony Award-winning musical “Contact.” In recent months he has traveled in his capacity as a writer, doing interviews for a book about diversity in theater casting.
For the diverse cast in his current production, Mr. Cousin has instilled in his actors that no one is to be portrayed as apologetic, which he believes sets “Wig Out!” apart from musicals such as “La Cage aux Folles” or “Kinky Boots.”
“It’s much grittier, and they speak a language that is their own, and the audience has to be taught how to listen to it. It’s written in a very progressive, real-time way,” Mr. Cousin said.
“Wig Out!” also has been the launching point for cast members to explore the politics, culture and intensity of lives lived from one drag ball to the next. For audiences, it can be an exploration into a subculture that they thought they knew.
“Everyone has a concept of what a drag queen or a transgender person is,” Mr. Cousin said. “This show delves very deeply into their lives and backgrounds.”
The director understands that it may be hard for people to accept that these competitors will do anything for what he called “five seconds of pretend fame.”
“This world, these balls, these competitions, are the world to them,” he said.
“Wig Out!” is a chance for the rest of us to enter that world for a couple of hours and catch a glimpse of what life is like behind the makeup and the music and the wigs.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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