The joy of genius

I went to see two shows last week: The MTC’s, The Drowsy Chaperone, and, Gentlemen Prefer Blokes. I feel compelled to write about the latter.

I went to see two shows last week: The MTC’s, The Drowsy Chaperone, and, Gentlemen Prefer Blokes. I feel compelled to write about the latter.

This is not a review – it’s an appreciation of the redefining of a very, very old performance form. ‘Drag’.

‘Drag’ has always been considered somewhat disreputable, from its origins in the days of the male-dominated societies of Ancient Greece and Egypt. Since women were excluded from the sacred mysteries of performance, boys took female roles. ‘Necessity was the mother of invention’. 

This makes it an attractive outlet for boys who have been caught trying on Mum’s clothes or make-up for centuries, and sometime these behaviours carry forward into adult life. Gay or straight, upside-down or sideways we have been fascinated with the female form since that damn snake and that damn apple and that damn Eve.

Now, I need to be careful here. It’s a very touchy area and I apologise now if I get this wrong. There’s a different between drag and female impersonators or ‘gender illusionists’.

The superb exponent of the Garland repertoire, Jim Bailey, who sings and looks like Judy calls himself, an ‘illusionist’. Steven Brinberg, with his Streisand exposee, ‘Simply Barbra’, is a female impersonator. They intend us to suspend our disbelief and enter the lives and worlds of the female artists’ lives that they celebrate. These gentlemen do not do ‘drag’. The world famous entertainer, Danny La Rue, was a female impersonator but a consummate artist first.

And there are others whose lives may have commenced as one particular sex, but, for very personal reasons, have decided to go through a process of gender re-assignment. They may, or may not, continue to work in this field.

But to me, ‘drag’, very cleverly allows words to come out of the mouths of men or women (lip-synched or not) while we KNOW they are of the opposite gender.

Whether the performer is a drag king or queen, it is a form that has entertained the world for centuries. Nay, eons. And it seems to not garner respect as a form, which of course it should.

So, on a blisteringly hot night, I braved TheatreWorks in St. Kilda to see two mates, Trevor Ashley (perhaps the busiest man in Australian show-business) and the absolutely gorgeous, Shane Jenek (aka ‘Courtney Act, who gives excellent facial product endorsement) in Gentlemen Prefer Blokes.

There’s no miming here. These boys do the whole thing for real. Shane’s extra-ordinary light Tenor voice allows one to believe that you ‘may’ be listening to a female, but Trevor’s voice that sounds like it’s gone through a chaff-cutter after 2 bottles of Bourbon, leaves no doubt. Both superb musicians, these boys poke fun at the sliding door of illusion that is ‘drag’. And we know, they are boys.
Not happy to lip-synch to Brittany or a Gloria Gaynor – they sing their way through about a dozen numbers or more. 

But what really sets this show apart from a lot of ‘drag’ is the script. Phil Scott and Tony Taylor write to celebrate the clunky backstage jabber that we expect from characters such as these two. It’s bloody hard to write that. 

The danger of bitchiness that turns on a 1 cent piece (please try to remember what they were) into pathos with a well-stretched cheek in place. Really great stuff. Once again, this sort of stuff, this specific and superbly-observed writing, doesn’t get celebrated enough. The observation. The care. The respect.

Then there are the costumes. Please – always remember that exponents of this art spend so much time and so much money to entertain you. Think of the costumes alone. Every spare cent goes into the next rhinestone, the next set of shoes, the next outrageous idea.

And then the 2 artists, who rape the 4th wall down the second they turn up on stage, ensure that the Scott/Taylor efforts reach their destination.

I guess that’s what I am saying: “There’s no 4th wall in drag”. You just let it all hang out, or tuck it in, as the case may be.. All of the practitioners of the form are trying to advance it in some way. And they’re doing it for us.

You can always send your topic suggestions through to me at: [email protected]

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