BWW Review: WIG OUT! at the REP Showcases as Much Humor as it Does Heart in Stunning Depiction of Drag Queen Community
Angels in America. The Normal Heart. Falsettos. Rent. Bare. La Cage aux Folles. A Chorus Line. Next Fall. The Laramie Project. Speech and Debate. Fun Home. They're all important for a multitude of reasons, but one of those reasons far surpass the rest: They are wonderfully crafted works with three-dimensional, relatable characters and provide very necessary representation for members of the LGBTQ community and they jumpstart discussions and spread awareness for non-LGBTQ people.
Far too often for far too long, musicals and plays have been written and crafted in a very whitewashed, cookie-cutter way, featuring characters that are usually straight and white. While there is nothing wrong with writing compelling and interesting characters that happen to be straight and white, theatre producers (and producers in other artistic mediums) as a whole have to start adapting to the cultural shift in America by showcasing and celebrating works that celebrate people that don't fit that mold.
Two recent examples of works that do this seamlessly are Fun Home and Hamilton. Fun Home, five time Tony Award winner and Pulitzer finalist, follows the story of lesbian cartoonist Allison Bechdel and her struggles with gender roles, identity, sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and suicide. Fun Home was lauded for its honest and accurate portrayal of homosexuals, especially for it's depiction of discovering homosexuality at a young age.
Hamilton, winner of 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer, brings diversity to the theater for a very different, but equally important reason. Representation for interesting, fleshed-out people-of-color is incredibly difficult to come by. That isn't the case in Hamilton. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda set about creating the show to reflect current America in the casting and he manages to do just that. Almost every single cast member in the show is a person of color, which is basically unheard of.
This all brings me to The REP's season opening production at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, WIG OUT!, which manages to combine what both Hamilton and Fun Home accomplish into one fast-paced two-hour experience (to varying degrees of success).
The first aspect of the show that has to be commended are the performances. At the heart of this show lies two of the finest performances I have ever seen in Pittsburgh. Eric (Jordon Bolden) and Wilson/Ms. Nina (Justin Lonesome) were poignantly compelling. When the show began, I wasn't entirely sold for the first 15 minutes or so. The parts that I was sold on included these two actors, who were superbly realistic, three-dimensional and beautifully fleshed out. It's rare that LGBT relationships onstage feel so honest and gritty, but with these two actors, I never doubted their connection for a moment.
As Wilson/Ms. Nina, Justin Lonesome was captivatingly fluid. He did the finest job of all of the actors switching between his two personas and the way in which he was able to switch from confident and charismatic to vulnerable and guarded was absolutely enthralling. When his relationship with Eric progresses, the show progresses, and ultimately, at the end of the show you feel satisfied with Nina's journey, albeit slightly pained about the conclusion. You're rooting for this actor every single time he steps onto the stage, and he never disappoints.
As Eric, the outsider of the entire family, Jordon Bolden excelled in every scene he was in. For many people in the audience, this will be the character that people will relate to. He is a gay male who has never been involved in the drag-queen world and as he experiences it all for the first time, his bewilderment and utter confusion reflects the way the audience may oftentimes feel throughout the show. By the end of the production, Eric feels confused yet grateful to have experienced the Drag Queen universe, as does the audience. Bolden makes Eric a very grounded character who feels natural and even subtle at times and this works wonderfully when paired next to an ensemble of extremely heightened personalities.
If Eric and Nina are the heart of the show, the Fates (Krista Antonacci, Arica Jackson, Amber Jones) are the blood that pumps through the production. Serving as a Greek chorus meets Destiny's Child of sorts, these three ladies constantly sing with dazzling harmonies (Their rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" was mesmerizing) and move and groove with joyous pizazz. What most impressed me about their vocals was the fact that they were able to find their starting notes and pitches with no indication from a piano or accompanist a majority of the time. As incredible as they sounded, I eventually was worn down by the over abundance of music. There were at least two or three instances where I felt as if entire passages of music could have been truncated. It wasn't that they didn't sound incredible, but the musical moments (though relaying a heightened emotional feeling in the story) halted the plot from moving forward. Regardless, the audience absolutely loved them and it was clear that they were a crowd favorite.
Freddy Miyares as Venus was a revelation. Miyares' Venus was the head mediator of the House of Light and he had by far the best comedic timing of anybody in the cast. Multiple moments throughout the show, whether it be small hand gestures, funny facial expressions or witty line delivery had the audience cackling. By being such a wonderful source of comedic relief, the moments where Miyares found the character's vulnerability were only strengthened. This was especially prevalent and on full display during the touching "My grandmother wore a wig" monologue in the middle of Act I. Current BFA Acting Major at Carnegie Mellon University, this performer is certain to go places.
As the on-again/off-again partner of Venus, Latrea Rembert has a somewhat thankless role as Deity. The actor gives a sturdy performance, bounding around the stage with swagger and an air of coolness that is pleasant when juxtaposed next to the rest of the ensemble in the House of Light. He had many touching moments with Miyares. As the patriarch of the family, Lucian, Jerome Rodriguez took some time warming up to. There were moments in his earlier scenes that his aggressive demeanor was borderline comical and felt slightly forced. However, when he really eased into the character near the end of the first act, he was glorious. A particularly confrontational scene with Eric near the end of Act I was one of the finest scenes in the entire show.
Jordan Phillips had a challenging role as Rey-Rey, a drag queen past her prime. The writing attempted to bring up an interesting discussion about age and roles in a community that oftentimes disregards that area, but it ultimately fell flat and lost steam near the end of the first act. Phillips did a marvelous job portraying the character and the audience was able to fully sympathize with the plight of Rey-Rey, but the character was sadly tossed aside and got a half-baked, dissatisfying conclusion compared to the rest of the ensemble.
If every other character attempted to subvert stereotypes, Connor McCanlus as Serena deliciously embraced them. McCanlus began act II similar to the way Patti LuPone infamously finished "Rose's Turn" in her final performance of Gypsy on Broadway, chiding and referencing audience members on their cellphones or calling out ones that just returned from the bathroom in hilariously ribbing fashion, all in good fun of course. As Loki, JarEd Smith did a serviceable job as the sharp-witted sidekick to Serena. The two of them made for a humorous, albeit one-dimensional pair and different perspective from outside the House of Light.
Brilliant performances and tech don't matter without incredible writing and the highest of praises belongs to playwright Tarell Alvin McCranney for crafting a sensational piece of theatre. The script is Shakespearian to a large degree. At times, characters speak in rhyme or in couplets and the words flow from the pages effortlessly to the stage. The script is so dense with quotable lines (powerful and funny ones alike) that I would've appreciated having a copy of my own to sift through to help assist me in writing this review. Stereotypes were so often subverted and characters were so clearly fleshed out that I spent much of the show blown away and scrambling to comprehend what I was watching.
A lot comes at the audience in the course of two hours, and the script demands that the people experiencing it pay close attention to every line. One particular piece of writing has to be touched upon: Each character gets a moment where they have a monologue saying, "My grandmother had a wig." These monologues were brilliant in revealing backstory and character history and moments of understanding identity in absolutely riveting fashion and were some of the strongest moments in the show. It is rare for a show to have such strong representation, for both the LGBTQ community and people of color alike, and McCranney does it in a way that feels appropriate and completely genuine.
Act I was stronger than Act II. Act I took its time developing characters and relationships and was really plot heavy. Every scene advanced the plot and kept building towards the competition between the two houses. Act II was also strong, but the actual competition itself felt far less important than the stories of the characters competing, and focusing on the competition for more than half of the second act did unfortunately detract from the overall enjoyment of the show (though the audience seemed to love the competition, so I may be in the minority with that opinion). The substance seemed sacrificed for spectacle.
The director, Tomé Cousin, does a nice job moving all of the actors around seamlessly between the various locations on stage. The actors always move with clear purpose and made their entrances and exits meaningful. Cousin did a nice job handling the staging of the last moment in Act I, angling actors and revealing just enough of an intimate scene that the audience was able to fill in the rest with their imagination. One misstep was the choice of using the production's deck crew as the competition judges in Act II. It felt clunky and uncomfortable. The crew didn't feel as if they lived in the same world as the principal performers.
The costume design by Robert Steele was sensational, especially in Act II during the drag competition. Actors came out donning dazzling garb that was magnificent to look at. The lighting design by Andrew Ostrowski was also appropriate, never taking away from the action that was happening onstage. The scenic design (Britton Mauk) was fine. It was probably my least favorite design element in the show, but it worked. The bedrooms of the characters felt sparse, but the large painting in the back of the set was very interesting to analyze and look at. It made me think of the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg (The Great Gatsby) only modified to appeal to the drag universe. The transformation and use of the space from Act I and Act II was also rather impressive and should be applauded. The sound design was also a tad bit shoddy. Everything seemed just a bit too loud on the night that I saw the show. I'm sure that Sound Designer StEve Shapiro had to compensate for the fact that the audience was extremely rowdy and responsive all night, which makes his job more difficult, but nonetheless, adjustments in volume could have been made.
Not every moment of WIG OUT! connected and resonated with me. That is okay. I am a straight, white male. I can confidently say that this play was not written for me and there were many parts of the show that left me confused and with questions. I looked around at some of the audience members that night that also saw the show. The people of color and the members of the LGBTQ community in attendance were absolutely blown away by what they saw. They felt touched, represented and connected. One boy said to me, and I quote, "it was the best play I have probably ever seen and I've seen a lot of plays." The elderly people sitting next to me did not join in on the thunderous standing ovation and looked uncomfortable throughout the production, rarely laughing. It's a matter of perspective. I was somewhere in the middle, but far closer to the earlier crowd as opposed to the later. WIG OUT! is an extremely important theatrical work and it should be seen by everybody and anybody.
For the people who can connect with what is happening onstage, you will feel representation, understanding, and comfort knowing that you are not alone. To those who may not be able to relate to the characters and problems that the ensemble faces, I believe it is even MORE important that you see the show. Let it expand your horizons, open up your mind, and allow it to start a conversation for you. Learn something and get out of your comfort zone.
Last year, The REP opened its 2015-2016 season with Country House, a play that I felt had a strong cast but lacked a good script and diversity and ultimately, the production felt very safe. This year, with WIG OUT! they have done the opposite, opening their season with a bold, unapologetic and socially important play. It should not be missed.