Archive for June, 2016

Review – Heels of Glory – Chelsea Theatre

June 17, 2016

Rarely has there been a week when I have been more in need of some ultra-cheesy sequins-and-glitter fun, and, fortunately, my trip to Heels of Glory, the “drag action musical,” had been pre-booked. My forays into drag culture have been expanding in the last few years – thanks to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, the Green Carnation, and the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club – but this year has been on a real high as I had invitations to competing nights watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (which I never saw before this season – disadvantage of not owning a TV) and a fairy drag mother who wanted to catch me up with what I had missed. Modern drag culture, BRING IT!

However, as a regular theater goer, I was feeling quite a bit of trepidation about this show. I’ve been to several vanity productions where someone’s noble idea was given far more attention that it ever needed (when being tied in a sack and tossed in a river was what it deserved); would this be one of those things? Drag queens who might shine in their stage act reduced to mouthing clunky jokes; flabby songs that failed to take flight; and a supporting cast clearly brought in from this year’s crop of drama school grads and completely lacking in chemistry?

But the plot sounded so outrageous and full of my kind of humor that I kept my hopes level, if not high. I mean, just read this description of the first scene: “Sumptuous velvet curtains open to reveal a stunningly glamorous drag queen. This is Splendorella (Topsie Redfern AKA Nathan Kiley). Full of regal grace, she welcomes us to La Douche, the world’s number one drag club, with her signature song, Heels of Glory.” And then we have a baby drag queen (Honey – Matthew Floyd Jones) and her James Bond loving tomboy sidekick (Jay – Susan Harrison) – it just seemed so very promising!

To my great surprise, this show was actually as much fun as I had hoped for and more. Yes, we had glorious glamazons in sequined gowns and towering high heels (and maybe a touch too much eye shadow and lip liner), but we also had extremely strong character performances from Jay and arch-villainess Allura Supreme (Sarah-Louise Young). And the backup characters – the “silent but deadly” (this is a song!) enforcer henchmen – were like a troupe of Marx Brothers pumping up the comedy levels.

In addition, there were so many things this show did that I appreciated, from the fact that the friendship between a young butch girl and a young drag queen were treated like, well, just a thing that happens, with both of them free to be their own selves and tease each other and yet still respecting each other for their differences. The drag queens themselves didn’t turn into horrible catty stereotypes (although there was some teasing of each other during an on-stage insult competition – that managed to not get genuinely nasty, quite a line to walk!), and actually wound up dealing with some of the issues (of aging, identity, and other things) that the community as a group faces, but managing it with a light touch and overall lack of meanness … well! And it had a singalonga, participatory disco dancing, and a happy ending. Really, you could not have asked for a more cheerful evening out. My friends had a great evening – and I think there are a lot more people out there that will love this show as much as we did. If you want to “get down with YOUR bad self,” Heels of Glory is just the show to take you there. Glasses of prosecco HIGHLY recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 16, 2016. It continues through June 26th.)

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Review – 4:48 Psychosis – Royal Opera House at Lyric Hammersmith, London

June 17, 2016

This opera is remarkable on many fronts. First, it is the first adaptation of the works of Sarah Kane for opera. Her star is truly in ascendance, fifteen years after her death: Sheffield Theaters mounted a Sarah Kane season featuring all of her works last year, and she’s finally made it to the National (with Cleansed) in 2016. Given the strength of her artistic vision and the power of her prose, it seems very appropriate for her work to be picked up for the medium of opera.

Second, this production marks the culmination of a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to create a doctoral degree in opera composition. Philip Venables is the first person to make it through the program, and 4:48 Psychosis is, in effect, his dissertation (the residency comes with a commitment to produce the work created during its three year duration).

4:48 Psychosis describes an experience of being hospitalized (and released, and rehospitalized) while severely depressed. It can’t be considered a spoiler to say that the protagonist kills herself at the end; knowledge of Kane’s death hangs heavily over every word of the play, over every dismissive comment the medical personnel make to the protagonist, and casts a shadow of heartbreaking irony over comments such as, “I don’t want it [my suicide] to be mistaken as a cry for help.” This personal, internal journey is portrayed through an ensemble of six singers, one of whom (Gweneth-Ann Rand) seems most clearly to be the protagonist, and one of whom (Lucy Schaufer) frequently takes a role of a doctor. At times all of the group works together, singing the protagonist’s thoughts, like a Greek chorus of internal despair; at other times they split, sometimes along doctor patient lines, sometimes in various configurations that present warring ideas.

But Venables has done more than just sing Kane’s words. The ensemble sometimes is given silence (and motion) while the singing (or breathing) comes through speakers; the words themselves frequently appear in bold, crisp text on the back of the set. Kane’s
web of non-dialogue, of running madness filtered through a powerful intelligence, slams into us in print, on the monitors, from the singers, from a recording. It is a wall of multisensory despair, punishing to experience so clearly elucidated. And yet some of the most traumatic moments come when the voices fall away; when the conversations that will lead to a brilliant mind’s snuffing out are held, visibly doctor and patient, but aurally between a drum and a metal pole. The dispassionate, unconnected doctor is pinged and twanged, her text bleating, “It’s not your fault” while the sounds show the lie of compassion in her words; the protagonist, vibrantly experiencing the truth of this game playing, booms back via the drum, the simple repudiation of her text as powerfully expressed as Jesus’ rebuke of Judas. The protagonist knows she cannot survive this torture; the doctor knows she must not drop her guard. The audience can only watch as this game, in which psychoactive drugs take the place of human contact, plays out to its inevitable conclusion. And, in the end, having heard exactly why life was so terrible, it is devastating to realize that the protagonist’s despair could not be argued against. Being alive is painful. If you notice this too strongly, the bad will drown you. And being this helpless in the face of so much despair is heartbreaking. It is a very appropriate operatic experience and will hopefully be revived shortly after this four day run.