Today, you’ll read plenty of think pieces about an old, quintessentially underground creative mode going mainstream.
Drag, the art of men dressing as women, involves more than just its defining gimmick: Yes, the makeup, wig-styling, and body-padding skills complete the illusion, but it amounts to mere impersonation without the life-as-theater flair, the lip-syncing chops for chewing up diva-sung ballads and bangers, and the encyclopedic-yet-fluid sense of pop culture and gay history that have long made drag queens the holders, the ambassadors, of queer culture. LGBTQ rights have risen in social consciousness, competitive reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has grown in popularity, and drag has undergone a mild kind of “normalization.” Going to a drag show is a regular night out. (On Fridays and Saturdays.)
Now, all mixed up in this mainstreaming, the Guthrie Theater’s new show The Legend of Georgia McBride stars Casey, a straight man, soon-to-be father, and Elvis impersonator in the Florida Panhandle who turns to drag when his fake sideburns start to fade.
As with many theater companies, the Guthrie will likely always draw an older crowd. But I’ll admit, when I attended a recent Sunday-night show, the sight of so many older folks expressly interested in a play about drag at first surprised me. It shouldn’t have, as I’ll make clear in a second.
First, you’ve got to think this audience was probably not very far from being just about exactly the right audience to enjoy an Elvis impersonator. The play opens with the southern-drawling Casey (played with golden retriever-meets-frat boy charm by Jayson Speters) showing us his act, dressed in a white jumpsuit and Pompadour. The manager of the club where Casey is a regular laments that his audience is just seven people—which explains why Casey’s wife (played sympathetically by Chaz Hodges) is so anxious. She works as a server at a restaurant and later announces she’s pregnant after taking her husband to task for blowing their rent money on pizza.
From left: Casey (Jayson Speters) and Jo (Chaz Hodges)/Photo by Dan Norman
It’s not that Casey isn’t a good Elvis impersonator. He’s the King, and we get that. But the audience that night at the Guthrie, as if reflecting the reality of the play, responded tepidly to his swiveling hips and curled lip. The club manager soon replaces Casey with drag queens, and it somehow makes sense. Casey’s Elvis, while bedazzled, feels like a bag of three or four tricks compared to the self-deprecating, Looney Tunes dynamism of Liza Minnelli, as impersonated by drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (played with arch buoyancy by Cameron Folmar).
One night, Tracy gets Casey, who’s stuck working the bar, to fill in for a drag queen too drunk to stay on her roller skates. After the expected wide-eyed resistance, Casey finds he makes more money performing in drag than he did as Elvis. He keeps filling in. A natural entertainer, he comes to love the work, and this makes the play’s most captivating scenes. Casey invests so much into developing his drag persona that when Tracy opines that his bulging-biceps take on Madonna misses the mark, I disagree. And there’s no reason the Guthrie audience shouldn’t have also been just about exactly the right audience for his and Tracy’s campy reinterpretations of tunes by Judy Garland, Nancy Sinatra, Edith Piaf, and Patsy Cline. Drag’s all about dressing pop classics in extra-spangly costumes and innuendo. If this play gets three things across, it’s that everybody knows these songs, drag is plain-old entertaining, and it’s your hang-ups that are ridiculous.
Actually, “hang-ups” are another thing drag has that Casey’s Elvis didn’t—i.e., the inherent tension of gender performance. Here’s an extra layer of theater. We sit up and tune in to a big question. “What, exactly, is feminine versus masculine, and why?” A woman impersonating Elvis would command greater attention—and somehow cut closer to the superstar’s essence.
In a program Q+A, playwright Matthew Lopez stresses that The Legend of Georgia McBride is not a “gay play.” The queries it raises about gender roles and social expectations occur to everybody, even if members of the LGBTQ community often answer them first.
Still, drag is gay, and so the play duly acknowledges that its star is a straight, white male. An intense monologue, delivered by the formerly too-drunk Rexy (played with convincing bite by Arturo Soria), alludes to the deep history of drag and lays bare the perils that often come with doing it. Sure, much of it is fun, but Casey, we understand, still has a lot to learn.
Indeed, some of the show’s conflict stems from Casey and his wife struggling to grasp the meaning of drag. They don’t dwell on it much, though. If Casey’s shame at dressing as a woman gets played at first as relatable, slapstick discomfort, it surfaces later on as drama just a few times. Meanwhile, wife Jo’s anger largely overlooks her husband’s new job to focus instead on his lying about it. This makes sense. It keeps the central characters likable, for one. Their transformations have more to do with personal growth than shattering realizations about gender. Drag, in this way, becomes a metaphor for defying the narrative that’s been set for you—or that you’ve set for yourself.
The show wants most of all to uplift and entertain, which it does. Still, I did think about a different play, centered on Tracy (whose own transformation involves reimagining her life in the Florida Panhandle). It would likely be heavier, more challenging. But it would also miss out on this play’s big takeaway: that anyone can, and should, do drag.
The Legend of Georgia McBride
Through August 26
From left: Tracy (Cameron Folmar), Rexy (Arturo Soria), and Casey as Georgia McBride (Jayson Speters)/Photo by Dan Norman