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EVERYONE’S GRANDMA HAS A WIG

 

picture - Wig Out!Theater Review

by Harvey Perr

published October 10, 2008

 

Wig Out!

now playing Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater

through November 2

 

Tarell Alvin McCraney, the richly talented author of The Brothers Size, has whirlwinds of ideas dancing around in his head, and it is no secret that, in his new play, Wig Out!, he is attempting to get many of them out of his head and onto a stage. And by the time Wig Out! comes to its exhausting and exhaustive and fairly explosive end, it would seem that McCraney has succeeded triumphantly in doing just that. In telling the saga of two warring African-American drag shows (familiar in part to those who have thrilled to Jenny Livingston’s memorable documentary, Paris is Burning) – the House of Light and the House of Di’Abolique – he creates a world so fantastic and so constantly innovative that it seems as if he is doing no less than fabulously erecting his own House of Atreus.

 

picture - Wig Out!Here is the rat-a-tat of urban poetry that wants to make mythology out of the commonplace. Here is a portrait of families who are alike in every way and, at the same time, unlike anyone else, playing out their destinies down dark streets in a flurry of sequins, treading lightly on the shards of disco ball fallout. Here, too, is the metaphoric tragicomedy of men finding, within themselves, what might be called their inner woman, as, one by one, each man recognizes that his grandmother had a wig, a wig they desperately needed to try on in order to find their own perfect fit. Which man is willing to admit that, as a child, he stood in front of a mirror in his mother’s clothes and tried to figure out, in his own way, what being a woman is like? Those men who are willing to do so will find, in McCraney, a joyous and bountiful interpreter of their dreams.

 

Since McCraney’s imagination is so uncompromising, it might be a little petty to recognize that the rivalries and conflicts of his characters can be, stripped of the poetry and the fabulousness, reduced to the kind of melodrama Hollywood used to revel in back in the glorious 40s. But, in odd and unexpected ways, this only adds to the fragrant stew that has been cooked up. But, for a few moments near the end of Act I, and because there has been a certain discursiveness along the way, and a sense that some of the poetry reeks with pretension, the drama falls somewhat flat and one feels that the first act has been marking time, that it is nothing more than one giant setup for the ball itself, the ball which will decide which House is victorious.

 

Ah, but once you get a whiff of what has been set up, once the second act curtain comes up on Daniel T. Booth, as the Queen Mother of the House of Di’Abolique, descending the aisle/staircase of the Vineyard Theatre, lashing out in vituperative hauteur, once the ball begins, Wig Out! is a knockout! And you never want it to end. To be sure, we are not as interested in the rivalry itself as we should be, but we are very much interested in being at the party. It is hard to tell sometimes whether the credit for the wild turns it takes goes to McCraney or to his director, Tina Landau, or that it is just one of the happier collaborations available to New York theatergoers at this precise moment. And this is a party that has a deliciously mean streak running through it. Watch out for the acid in the candy!

 

picture - Wig Out!Of course, one can also give a lion’s share of the credit to the performers, but breathes there a performer, no matter how close to genius his or her talents may cling, who doesn’t need a sturdy framework and some directorial inspiration? There is, for starters, the magnificent Booth (also known to the public as Sweetie and who was so good in The Tranny Chase) as Serena, whose interior devil is so blisteringly close to the surface that a mere swivel of his hips is all the information you need to have to understand the role he is playing. There is Joshua Cruz as Venus, the Mother of the House of Light, getting a bit too old for the game, her powerfully structured face a dynamic fusion of Eartha Kitt and Rachel Roberts, who exudes such strength that we don’t really believe that she is going down for the count. There is Nathan Lee Graham’s Rey-Rey, the one who will take off his glasses and reveal how beautiful he is, a highly kinetic and subtle drag artist. And it is not only the drag queens who threaten to blow down the house. Sean Patrick Doyle, as Serena’s underling, is as rubbery a dancer as he is sneakily persuasive an actor. And then, la crème de la crème, McCraney’s Greek chorus, The Fates 3, who are responsible throughout for keeping the play’s intricate rhythms in check, three real and full-bodied women – Rebecca Naomi Jones, Angela Grovey and McKenzie Frye – who, when they finally break out, bring to the proceedings a fiery tempestuousness (and genuine abilities as singers and dancers) that must be seen to be appreciated. The actors, in keeping with the more direct, more  melodramatic sections they are asked to keep alive, have an unaffected simplicity and even sweetness about them and they include Andre Holland as a young gay man just testing the waters, Clifton Oliver as a sassy drag queen and an even sassier model for machismo, Glenn Davis, sometimes cool, sometimes troublesome, always warm, as Deity, Rey-Rey’s lover, and, less sweet and unaffected perhaps, as the Father of the House of Light, Erik King who brings a bit of danger and hard sexuality to the part and to the play; his grandmother, one presumes, is the one grandmother who didn’t have a wig.

 

picture - Wig Out!Peter Kaczorwski lights James Schuette’s shimmering set to a fare-thee-well. Toni-Leslie James’s costumes are, as they must be, to die for, although, to be sure, they are as tacky as they are divine. And one cannot fail to mention the extravagantly trippy wigs which Wendy Parson has magically conjured up. What, after all, would “Wig Out!” be without its wigs?

 

It is always a delight to be present at the continued growth of a major young playwright, and to see him as well-served as Tarell Alvin McCraney is. This Wig Out! is a big leap forward from The Brothers Size, which already indicated quite clearly that we were witnessing the baby steps of a serious theater talent.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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