If you don’t know that Steel Magnolias, the play or film, is required gay viewing, don’t sweat it: It just means you’re probably not gay.
But for the six quite-gay men cast in an all-male version of the play Steel Dragnolias, which opens Friday at STAGEStheatre, Steel Magnolias has been a part of them for, well, as long as they’ve known who they were.
“It’s one of those things like Sex and the City, or Golden Girls or Designing Women—anything about a group of women in an environment where they can just be who they are,” says Miss Barbie Q, who plays Truvy, the woman who runs the salon where the play is set. “That is really appealing to a gay person.”
This isn’t just a cross-gender production à la STAGES’ all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross last year. Nor is it a production in which men dress up as women and completely goof on the source material. No, this lies somewhere in between: an affectionate parody of the original play, in director Stephen John’s words, and one firmly set in the world of drag.
All but David Campos, the lone STAGES regular in the cast, have ample experience as drag queens, either professionally or just dressing up for Halloween. And none has more experience than Miss Barbie Q, a film/TV major at Cal State Fullerton who, 12 years ago, adopted a drag-queen persona. He stopped four years ago, but he picked it up again last year after losing his job. He has performed at clubs across Los Angeles and also appeared in a Lady Gaga video.
And if you think drag is merely about dressing up as a woman, he’ll set you straight.
“It’s an attitude, a performance genre, really a lifestyle choice and way of looking at the world,” he says.
What drag means in context of the play is that everything is big: big characters, big emotions and big reactions.
Even so, the cast and crew are determined not to cross the line into camp.
“We had three choices,” director John says. “To do a straight, serious version of the play with men dressed up as women; to go really big and make it a musical or something along those lines; or to do something in between. We chose the latter. But even though we’re having a lot of fun, we know there’s a fine line between merely parodying something and still telling it with heart and honesty. And even though these are men playing women drag-style, all the sensitivity and femininity of the women is still there.”
The idea came late last year during the 2010-season-announcement party at STAGES. When it was announced that Steel Magnolias made the cut, a voice yelled, “We should do it in drag!”
That voice belonged to Jeffrey Rockey. On the other side of the theater was John, who initially laughed at the idea.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Why not?’” says John.
Rockey rewrote the script, keeping about 20 percent of the original. It’s only 75 minutes long: One character has been eliminated, motivations are changed, relationships tweaked, there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and, of course, there are a lot of gags.
But throughout the process, John and his six “ladies,” as he calls them, have adhered tirelessly to one objective.
“We have to tell this story with heart,” Miss Barbie Q says. “We’re having a lot of fun with it, but we’re keeping it kitschy, not campy. And that’s been a challenge.”
“It’s been crazy fun, but we really give a damn about these women and their community,” says Jon Sparks, who plays Ouiser. “And I think it’s because we all see huge parts of ourselves in these women.”
Because it is so flamboyant, there is some stigma attached to the drag world. But, according to David Carnevale, the managing director of Theatre Out, Orange County’s lone gay-and-lesbian theater, drag “is a vitally important part of the gay community. We’re constantly reminded that the Stonewall riots in New York City started with drag queens who were tired of being constantly harassed.
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“The argument [against drag] is that when you see something on TV about a gay-pride parade, the first thing you see are the drag queens,” says Carnevale. “And some folks think it’s more important to present ourselves as the type of people whom [straight] people stand by every day. . . . But I think they do stand up in a different, very proud way. They say, ‘Yes, I do stand by you; you just don’t know that I put on a wig and a dress and create a persona.’ So I think the drag community has done wonders for gay rights and advancing the cause.”
Steel Dragnolias at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 10:30 p.m. Through June 12. $10-$12. Steel Magnolias also at STAGEStheatre. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through June 12. $15-$18.
This review appeared in print as "A Crossover Hit? The drag queens of STAGEStheatre’s Steel Dragnolias tread the fine line between kitsch and camp."