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Wig Out!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Erik King and Nathan Lee Graham.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

For the moment, forget European cultural capitals: It's the Vineyard Theatre that's currently on fire. The blaze is one caused by the sparks emitted from Tarell Alvin McCraney's smart and scorching new play Wig Out!, a piercing and oddly poetic look at the drag underworld and the glamorous balls that make it respectable.

Yes, this is much the same territory covered by Jennie Livingston's landmark 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. And despite some outstanding performances and Tina Landau's mesmerizing direction, this show doesn't always escape the film's shadow. Without the movie's background, the ball culture is nearly impenetrable (a four page primer in the program is recommended reading); and convincing as the central performers are as drag virtuosos, most of them look and behave too clean-scrubbed to be societal castoffs who only survived by clumping together into groups (or "houses").

But for McCraney, the film isn't the end of the line - it's the beginning. His vision of this perpetual underground fashion show is not one of broken bodies and discarded dreams, but of modern myth. Peppered with the verse of our time - mostly in the form of catchy commercial slogans and snatches of songs from the radio and musicals alike - the realm McCraney has created is one in which elaborately shallow games of dress-up become epic battles between gods and goddesses. The show thrives on not only the ultimate American god, success, but also on precepts and characters from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology that make sense with these passionate omniscients as they might with no one else.

The warring factions here are the House of Di'Abolique and the House of Light, both of which are facing off at the Cinderella Ball, but the latter of which is waging far bloodier battles of identity within its own ranks. At stake: the supremacy of the house Mother, Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham), who's desperate to show Father Lucian (Erik King) she still has what it takes; supposed soul mates Venus (Joshua Cruz) and Deity (Glenn Davis); and Ms. Nina (Clifton Oliver), who meets a young man named Eric (Andre Holland) who has yet to become embroiled in this very different lifestyle.

Though all the characters operate within a deliriously elevated atmosphere, McCraney never lets them float above the play; they're locked in their circumstances and aren't allowed to forget it. This, more than anything else, gives Wig Out! its intoxicating urgency, and transforms the Cinderella Ball competition (which consumes almost the entire second act) into a believable life-or-death struggle. Who will succeed, who will fail, and the cosmic implications of why become surprisingly potent questions for a play that wants to pretend it has very little on its mind.

In transforming the entire theater into a ghostly disco ballroom (designed by James Schuette), complete with a runway extending into the audience and seating on three sides of the action, Landau demonstrates that she, too, intimately understands the play as being about people who can't help but perform. And though Toni-Leslie James's costumes are exquisite creations, it's the actors' willingness to show you the hurting humans beneath them that gives the play its moments of truest beauty.

Nathan Lee Graham.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Graham is the picture of understated elegance as Rey-Rey, making her as cunning as she is warm, someone you can't wait to be knocked down a peg or two, but whom you feel bad about nonetheless. Oliver is highly touching as the sensitive young lover caught between family and romance, while Holland is just right as her reluctant paramour. Cruz and Davis firm up the solid supplementary couple with rough-edged softness that highlights the violent exigencies of love under duress. King is more heavy-handed than imposing, but he possesses exactly the kind of magnetism Julian would need to keep order. Rebecca Naomi Jones, Angela Grovey, and McKenzie Frye are fiercely funny as the chorus of fates that narrates the action.

But for sheer authenticity, you can't surpass Daniel T. Booth. Renowned (or perhaps notorious) for his drag persona Sweetie, Booth plays Serena, the head of House Di'Abolique, as a full-figured juggernaut with world-crushing capabilities. The physical embodiment of crass class, he barrels through the dulcet tones of the rest of the play with the force of an out-of-control wrecking ball, as likely to take on the audience (especially in their post-intermission reverie) as he is the Lights. Nothing, it seems, escapes his attention.

And his dancing cannot possibly escape yours: His calamitously jiggling torso is a perfect match for his caressingly combative line readings, which chop through the rest of McCraney's considerable lyricism and remind you of the unpredictable dangers that frequently lie just beneath the surface of the night. Wig Out!, however, goes to great lengths to prove that Serena is the exception, rather than the rule, and that the other souls we meet are invariably of the more enlightened variety. Because McCraney's depictions of them are so vivid and so real, there's no compelling reason to disbelieve him.

Wig Out!
Through October 19
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre