Monday, June 22, 2009

A Review of The Drag

by Brad Quinn

Dreamwell - In the interest of full disclosure, let me start this review by revealing that I am neither a fan of the musical genre of theatre, nor do I find men dressed as women to be particularly amusing. So those reading this review can keep that in mind and perhaps give less weight to my criticisms, and more weight to my praise, of Dreamwell’s presentation of The Drag.

The Drag was written by Mae West, the infamous sex symbol of the early 20th century who was known for both her rapier wit and her ample bosom. She was also quite open minded and progressive in many ways, and The Drag is an example of that. Though it might seem tame and even a bit archaic now in its attitudes towards and representations of homosexuality, its main theme of acceptance and understanding towards homosexuals was no doubt quite shocking for its time, especially since we still live in a society where subjects such as gay marriage still stir up heated debate.

Community theatre is a labor of love, and nowhere is that more clear than in this production. The cast and crew had to put their hearts into this show in order to overcome some major obstacles. I have often bemoaned the lack of a decent theatrical venue in the Iowa City area, and as I watched this show I could not help but think that this show needed a bigger, better theater to spread its wings. Even before I got there, I found myself wondering how they were going to pull of a musical production in that space. I was fairly familiar with its dimensions, and couldn’t imagine where they might put even a small orchestra, or even a piano.

As I suspected, the only accompaniment for the music was a small electric piano. One generally thinks of a musical as being a big event with lots of sound and sight, but by necessity this one is small and intimate. Although that does work to a degree with this particular play, I could not help but wonder what it would be like if they had more to work with. The downside of this was that much of the music was two dimensional and similar sounding. However, there was an upside too, which was that the singers' voices were never overwhelmed by the music. As there were some very good singers among the cast, this made that particular aspect of the production quite enjoyable for anyone who loves a good display of vocal talent.

Another example of an obstacle this production had to overcome is the lighting, and this may be my biggest complaint about the show. The stage, though not particularly wide, is fairly deep. Dreamwell only used eight stage lights, and two of those were not working, which left the stage much too dim in general. There were significant dark patches which the actors could not help but wander into, and the only place one could be assured of getting decent lighting was actually just in front of the stage. There were lighting changes of a sort during the various musical numbers, but with such small lighting choices to begin with it was hard to tell. Dylan Wheeler, who designed the lights, unfortunately had his talents wasted with such limited resources. He did, however, get to showcase his onstage talent to better effect as one of the lead roles in the show, which I will say more on in a moment.

The set was very utilitarian; in fact I am relatively certain that I have seen the same basic set design used before in other Dreamwell productions. This is not a bad thing in and of itself; I only wish that it had been painted in brighter colors. The walls were a dark olive green which unfortunately exacerbated the dim lighting problem. I found the set for the first act to be a little too spare. It was meant to be a doctor’s office, but a few diplomas on the wall did not do enough to evoke that impression. However, for the next two acts the furnishings and set up (which takes advantage of the fact that this stage comes with its own built in fireplace) were quite adequate and only wanted for a little more space to play in.

This brings me to the final technical aspect of the show before I get into the actual performance itself: the costumes. This is a period piece set in late 1920’s New York City, and one of the best ways you can evoke a particular historical era on a small budget is through the use of proper costuming. This production succeeds in this aspect, to a certain extent. The first several characters to appear onstage are dressed wonderfully, and fairly period appropriate. I particularly liked a dapper eggplant colored suit worn by one of the characters. Unfortunately, some of the other male characters later in the show wore simple suit jackets and ties, which works but I would have liked to have seen more of the true 20’s style in their outfits.

The character of Clair Kingsbury at one point is dressed in a beautiful and alluring white party dress which will definitely have all eyes on her. However, at other times she is wearing the sort of bare bones of a flapper-esque dress. The dress itself is fine, but in order to make it work she needs to be wearing more accessories, such as gloves, jewelry, and by all means stockings. It is only in the last twenty years or so that women began to walk around bare legged, and I have to admit it bothered me a little bit that the women in this show were not wearing garters and stockings or such. It also distracted me somewhat that, other than a few exceptions, the characters all wore the same outfits over multiple days; however this again probably boils down to the question of resources.

Now, as to the show itself: in short the story is about a man, Rolly Kingsbury (TJ Besler), who is a closet homosexual married to his father’s best friend’s daughter. Besler portrays this character believably, as a sort of dissolute young man who feels trapped by the secret life he must lead, but also intolerably unmindful of the pain his lack of affection is causing his wife Clair. Though he does care for her, his true love is a man named Allen Grayson (Dylan Wheeler) who in turn has fallen for Clair, who is played with a wonderful sense of na├»ve fragility by the lovely Becca Robinson. The innocence and confusion she brings to the character might almost convince someone that her character really can’t quite figure out what’s missing from her marriage (hint: it’s sex).

It is a large cast, and I have to say that most of them did an excellent job with the material they had. The plot is rather thin, being mostly a morality play in a melodramatic wrapper, and some of the dialogue can be a bit heavy handed. In particular, Brian Tanner as Dr Richmond had to continually deliver the lessons and morals of the story, which he was able to do without becoming too pedantic and recondite. Rex Van Dorpe’s portrayal of a self loathing, love crazed, drug addicted ex-lover of Rolly’s definitely brought the melodrama, but he managed to pull it off without straying into the ridiculous, no mean feat. He kept it simple and sweet, which gave the audience sympathy for his plight.

I wish I could comment on the entire cast, but in the interests of brevity I will just limit myself to what I considered to be the highlights of the performances, notwithstanding those already mentioned. Dylan Wheeler gave a low key performance as Allen Grayson, but I thought his soft spoken and somewhat hesitant manner went a long way towards making his character believable as an upstanding man who is admired by both sexes; he also has a fine singing voice which went well with Ms. Robinson’s.

Of course, this show is called The Drag, so as you can imagine to some extent the cross-dressing characters are a major part of the show. One notable instance is actually a woman playing a male character. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but I did think Ellen Stevenson pulled it off quite well. As for the actual drag queens, one in particular stood out to me, Gary Tyrrell’s performance as Clem Hathaway. Gary has a great deal of stage presence, and he immediately brightened up a rather pedestrian first act the moment he stepped on stage. Every time he took the stage thereafter his grand gestures and ability to project his emotions to the room made him a scene stealer whether dressed as a man or a woman.

As I just mentioned, I did find the first act of the show to be somewhat trying. In addition to containing the majority of the moralizing, it also contains the least interesting musical numbers. The major issue I had was that the same stage device was used throughout the entire act; essentially every song was sung by one of the characters while Dr. Richmond sits and watches them silently and unmoving. Unfortunately, the singers don’t move around much during their numbers either.

However, the show definitely picks up in the second act. The humor starts to shine, and the musical numbers get more exciting. My favorite routine of the show, a great rendition of “Paddlin’ Madelin Home”, is performed in this act by the talented and unabashed chorus of drag queens (although they are not currently in drag) who use the limited stage space to great effect for the choreography. I found myself wishing that song would last longer, which I can tell you does not usually happen for me.

The third act as well is sure to delight many theatre goers, and John Crosheck does an outstanding rendition of “Hard-Hearted Hannah” as this act’s notable musical number. He, and indeed all of the drag queens, vamp it up and use the entire theater, not just the stage, to draw the audience in and engage them. There is plenty of verbal and physical comedy to go around, so I imagine it would be hard not to have a smile on your face during this act. Still, this is a melodrama and unlike most musicals, it can’t have a happy ending.

All that being said, the cast and crew of this show clearly put their best foot forward in this production. Credit has to be given to first time director Chuck Dufano, who took his limited resources and limited source material and made the best out of it. I suspect that if he chooses to continue to direct shows in the future that he will make a large impression in the local theatre community. As I said before, this show was a labor of love for all those involved, and if you want to see a group of people giving it their all and loving what they are doing, I think you’d find this show to be a good evening’s entertainment.

Brad Quinn is a veteran of the local theater scene, and has worked with all of the local community theaters both onstage and backstage in various capacities.

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