Photo credit: Wil Lindsey
Imagine if we all walked around naked all day (on second thought, don't, it could trigger a gag reflex). How would we signal who we are? The clothes we wear, our quotidian "drag" if you will, give people a clue about our identity, how we wish to be perceived in the world.
Drag culture has been with us for eons, from the male actors taking female roles at the Globe Theater five centuries ago—forced by societal pressures, don't get me started—to the latest "Ru Paul's Drag Race" episode. Another entry into the drag storytelling genre, "The Legend of Georgia McBride," by Matthew Lopez, is now at the Beck Center. It's a frothy and frequently amusing one-act that, even at a butt-numbing two hours, manages to hold one's attention.
However, a couple creative decisions and some inherent limitations in the script put a crimp in the generally excellent work turned in by the five-person cast. This play premiered in 2014, but you would swear it was written back in Tootsie-time, the early '80's, when we were all much less immersed in the idea of drag.
In this show, a middling Elvis impersonator named Casey loses his gig at a run-down Florida bar, replaced by a traveling two-person drag show. But when one of those performers turns up soused, Casey is talked into performing in drag, in five minutes no less. Faced with looming poverty and a wife Jo who's pregnant, Casey reluctantly dons a dress, wig and heels and totters out on the slot.
If you think you can write the rest of the play from there, you’re correct. It helps that playwright Lopez provides some witty zingers for the two veteran drag artists Miss Tracy Mills (Jason Eno) and the adventurously named Anorexia Nervosa (Zak Tashin). But the plot points are predictable. Yes, Casey gets real good at drag lip-synching and becomes a star. Yes, the drag show is a hit, saving Casey's economic ass as well as that of the bar owner Eddie (an amusing Brian Pedaci). And yes, Casey learns a life lesson from his journey into another gender, becoming a more responsible and respectful partner for Jo (Bryce Evan Lewis).
The production is kept aloft by Eno's snappy sass, strutting his stuff as Tracy while giving Casey a fast tutorial on the ins and outs of performing drag. And he is aided immensely by Tashin's "Nexie," whose acidic comments and drunken impersonation of Edith Piaf (mostly comatose) provide a needed dash of bitters to this sweet confection.
In the title role, Gittins displays an easy, "just another dude" affect as Casey that runs headlong into his new drag persona, it's "lip-synch or swim." And this is where the script goes soft. First, one wonders why Casey's quickly assembled stage name, Georgia McBride, sounds more like an assistant librarian in Willoughby than a queen of drag in Florida. Tracy and Nexie even have some fun batting around drag monikers that are known for their inventiveness—real ones (Pandora Boxx, Hedda Lettuce) as well as ones they think up on the spot (Frieda Slaves, Shalita Buffet).
Gittins' task is also hampered by the decision, apparently requested by the playwright, that the piece be presented without an intermission. This is a good idea for shows that don't need to pause, but in this instance it eliminates a chance for a huge reveal. Since Gittins is on stage a lot, there's only time enough for Casey to change clothes. So, we miss out on a show-stopping transformation that could have happened during an intermission, from Casey the guy to Casey in full-on drag makeup (it takes time, darlin'), an elaborate wig, and a stunning gown.
Drag is all about illusion, and there is precious little of it in "Georgia," since Tashin is double cast as Casey and Jo's landlord Jason, so he can't do the full makeup either. That leaves Eno to carry the drag load and, although he works it, the overall drag show effect is less than fabulous. Even the wigs, usually the dazzlers in any such romp, look sad and a bid bedraggled.
Also, Lopez's script is sexually modest as it deals with a lifestyle that is an iconic pillar of the gay community. Casey and Jo have a tiff when she learns of his new gig, but that resolves as predictably as everything else. As for Tracy and Nexie, they make scant reference to their sexual lives, which is odd since drag performers, most of whom are gay, typically aren't shy about sharing their experiences in that area.
That said, the laughs flow freely in this Beck production due to the actors' skills, agile direction by Eric Schmiedl, and set and lighting design by Trad Burns that keeps the show moving apace.
The Legend of Georgia McBride
Through June 26 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, beckcenter.org, 216-521-2540.