Mae West’s The Drag and Big Gay Feelings

As a lifelong Mae West aficionado, I jumped at the chance to review a production of one of her most infamous plays. The Drag, a play so scandalous that it did not even make it to Broadway, is a big gay melodrama written in a time when “sexual invert” was considered an appropriate term to use when discussing homosexuality.

The irony is that this play is very tricky to stage today, not so much because of the queer content (at least not here in our leftist bubble), but because homosexuality is discussed in extremely patronizing terms. Fortunately, this is offset by the fact that a play written by Mae West and a troupe of drag queens is so steeped in camp I am frankly surprised they weren’t selling s’mores at intermission.

Photos by Shay Sooter

The majority of the roles in this production are performed in drag by a cast of actors from across the breadth of the gender spectrum, which makes the whole thing super duper queer. This is a relief because it becomes immediately apparent that the play was written expressly to capitalize on the titillation and moral outrage of The Straights.

The play starts with a strange scene in which the works of gay pioneer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs are discussed first by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richmond (Emma Wilkinson) and his prudish sister Barbara (Barrett Penrod) and then by the doctor and his friend Judge Kingsbury (Alexei Cifrese). Ulrich himself shows up (Janette Oswald) as a spectral figure who makes comments to the audience about his works and then disappears from the play never to be seen again. The discussion centers around whether homosexuality is a problem to be solved by medical science or by the law. It’s uncomfortable to hear, but the scene is played for laughs. Wilkinson, in particular, is hilarious with a performance I can only call a drag king version of a Woody Allen impersonator.

Photos by Shay Sooter

The plot is as soapy and ridiculous as any 1920’s musical comedy. There’s a love triangle, the judge’s son Rolly Kingsbury (Gavin Michaels) is married to the doctor’s daughter Clair (Blake Simpson), but Rolly is gay and in love with Allen (Kenon Veno) who is tragically straight and in love with Clair. Rolly’s former lover David Caldwell (Varinique Davis) is histrionic and cannot deal with any of it. The story is beside the point as this play is All About The Drag. There is a full on drag ball at the beginning of the second act. It is a bit crowded on the tiny Gay City stage, nearly every cast member of the 18 person cast is on stage at once, but it is glittery and fabulous and features a very adorable dog cameo.

The costumes did not disappoint. The best sartorial moment in the show was the entrance of Allen in a pale gray suit- he looked like a young Tommy Tune and everyone in the audience gasped a little. The passionate clinch at the end of the first act featuring Allen and Clair, in a fluttery white dress and delightfully smeary red lipstick, was very satisfying. Other favorite moments: the chemistry between The Doll (Cifrese) and her super butch Taxi Driver beau (Maddie Noonan); Noonan as Marion, a character I wanted to see a lot more of; Janette Oswald as the long-suffering butler, Parsons; the insertion of a silent sapphic love story between the accompanist Gladys (Elisa Money) and the maid Jessie (Emma Shafer).

Photos by Shay Sooter

A projector screen is lowered several times throughout the play to show the audience montages 1920’s of news stories and film clips about scandalous homosexuals and their moral turpitude. The play ends with a tragedy, which shouldn’t be a surprise because we all know that gay people weren’t allowed to have happy endings in the early 20th century. The final film montage left me feeling slightly manipulated, but also verklempt, fired up, and ready to throw some bricks at bigotry.

In a 1971 interview with Playboy, Mae West said, “Camp is the kinda comedy where they imitate me,” and this production does its utmost to live up to her legend. I had a good time as well as some Big Gay Feelings™. I recommend it to anyone who’s ever giggled at a double entendre.

Want to see The Drag at Gay City (517 E Pike St) until June 29thBuy Tickets Here!

 

Tambre Massman grew up in Montana where she was raised by feral beatnik cowboys and attended the BFA acting program at the University of Montana. Since fleeing to Seattle, Tambre has appeared on several stages as an actress, variety performer, and stand-up comic. Recent credits include the Detroit Women of Comedy Festival, Seattle Sketchfest, and Intersections Festival. Best known as an outspoken comic who is overdressed for every occasion, she’s been called the Feminist Fatale of Seattle Comedy. Instagram: @theglambamtam, Website: tamb.re

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