Matthew Lopez’s riotous, fierce comedy THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE, now onstage at Arden Theatre Company, celebrates the art of drag through a heartfelt fish-out-of-water story.
For Elvis impersonator Casey (Matteo Scammell), the timing of losing his gig at the shabby club Cleo’s couldn’t be worse: he and his wife Jo (Jessica M. Johnson) are late on rent again, and Jo is pregnant. Cleo’s owner Eddie (Damien J Wallace) takes the club’s entertainment in a new direction by hiring two drag queens—Rexy (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) and Miss Tracy Mills (Dito van Reigersberg)—to replace Casey as headliners. It seems like Casey’s lip-syncing days are over, until one evening, Rexy is too drunk to perform, and Tracy must give this straight man a crash course in drag.
Like many comedies that experiment with identity politics, GEORGIA MCBRIDE wraps up with loose ends. The play inquires into the origin and ownership of drag performance, raising “a sequined fist” to mere crickets in response from the heterosexual voice in which the play also speaks. On one hand, it proudly proclaims drag to be a birthright of queer, gender-nonconforming people, but on the other, dismisses that claim with a mere shrug. And ironically, as drag celebrates and praises the sacred feminine (even and especially in pop stars like Rihanna and Brittany Spears), Lopez’s could have definitely given Jo – the only “traditionally”-female character – a more fleshed-out character for Johnson to inhabit. But “yass gawd”, is Lopez’s script funny as all hell. Moreover, Melanie Cotton’s choreography likens the play to an actual drag show, and helps us buy into Casey’s transformation. The play is simply entertaining and best enjoyed when viewed as entertainment, not as a serious thinkpiece on queer theory.
Long-time Arden fans may recognize playwright Mathew Lopez’s name from his 2011 production THE WHIPPING MAN. But audiences of GEORGIA MCBRIDE will find these two plays, in the words of Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen, “radically different…not only in subject matter, but in tone and structure and language and its relationship with the audience.” And Philly theater aficionados will definitely recognize van Reigersberg as Tracy, who is perhaps better known by his feminine alter-ego Martha Graham Cracker. Tracy is closer to the queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race than the Martha whose cabarets please crowds at L’Etage and the Fringe Festival, but she’s just as charismatic, hilarious, and lovable.
Emmanuelle Delpech as director navigates the euphoric highs and high-tension lows of GEORGIA MCBRIDE expertly. The play swells in energy steadily until it has to deflate, and then quickly rises up until – bang – it’s over. Her handling of the play, to put it simply, is to make it as fun as possible for the audience and actors. Jorge Cousineau’s remarkable scenic design allows quick transitions between the play’s three main theatrical spaces through his set that is essentially a series of walls on an axle that turn like pages of a book. Lighting designer Maria Shaplin splashes the stage in bright, vibrant hues of mostly orange, pink, blue, green, eliciting the summery feel required by the Panama City, Florida, locale. Perhaps the most important designer on the team, though, would be costume designer Olivera Gajic, whose chic and sometimes outrageous drag costumes and wigs complete the show’s vibrant aesthetic.
GEORGIA MCBRIDE is sure to launch discussions on artistic license. Filled with music, it envisions a world of looser guidelines on expression of gender and sexuality, and it’s a total laugh riot.
[The Arden Theatre Company, The Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street) October 13-December 4, 2016; ardentheatre.org.