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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
WIG OUT
at the Vineyard Theatre

FAMILY VALUES
By PATRICK LEE

  A trio of ladies from Wig Out/photo: Carol Rosegg

Mom will have to step down as matriarch if she falters in her high heels, Dad is ready to get it on with the punk who stood him up last night, and the children are putting on dresses and lipstick. Wig Out, a new play by Tarell Alvin McCraney set in one of Harlem's legendary drag houses, is a fabulously colorful , wildly theatrical celebration of a distinct brand of gender-bent performance but it's also a fascinating peek inside a particular kind of family system. It's not for nothing that the show opens with the ensemble working the runway to a tricked-out version of the theme from The Godfather , which also chronicled a rule-bound American family as unforgiving and as outside the mainstream as the one displayed here.


We're barely introduced to the people of Harlem's fabled House Of Light (where, in line with drag house culture, its collection of performers are known as children under the supervision of elected parents) when a messenger from a rival house (Sean Patrick Doyle) challenges them to a drag-off at midnight. Thereafter, we follow their scattered little dramas, waiting for the high-stakes competition that will bring either glory or shame to the household. There's the matriarch Rey Rey (Nathan Lee Graham ) who has to put her legendary status on the line every time she takes the runway, Wilson (Clifton Oliver) who's fallen in love this morning with Eric (Andre Holland , and Venus (Joshua Cruz), who's fallen out of love almost as quickly with Deity (Glenn Davis).


These personal melodramas form a thematic throughline rather than a narrative one: we're soaking up the peculiarities and ironies of the subculture more than we're following a traditional story. The cross-dressing characters can often be wickedly funny and entertaining (especially when lip-synching or strutting on the catwalk at the competition) but McCraney doesn't present them as a campy joke. His interest, apart from manipulating their distinct lingo into rich, textured dialogue that often sings like street poetry, is in celebrating the artifice that draws these people into this world and in giving us insightful, sexually candid glimpses of what's below the surface.


Both McCraney's script and Tina Landau's brilliant direction playfully honor the inflated drama of the drag world by giving Wig Out some of the devices of grand tragedy. There's a Greek chorus of sorts, a trio of ladies (Rebecca Naomi Jones , Angela Grovey and McKenzie Frye ) who usually speak in pop lyrics but whose second-act dance routine is a show-stopper. Landau's visually expressive staging, for which the Vineyard Theatre has been reconfigured with a runway into the audience and with playing areas on three sides of the house, sometimes arranges the characters as if taking positions in a royal court.

This, in a play about drag queens, should go in to the dictionary under wit. And Wig Out, the most entertaining and incisively intelligent gender-bent theatre since Hedwig And The Angry Inch, should be in there too. It redefines fierce.

 


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