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A CurtainUp Review
Wig Out!

Where one night can leave you legendary
Or a subsidiary. . .
Where a daughter that once was a son. . .
Can find family
So as delicately as we can bring you
A story of a House. . .
That was never quite a home

— the Greek Chorus introducing the first of the two of the factions in Wig Out's depiction of the strange world of Drag Queen Houses and Ballroom competitions.
Nathan Lee Graham as Rey Rey with the kidz of the House of Light in Wig Out!
Nathan Lee Graham as Rey Rey with the kidz of the House of Light in Wig Out!
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jennie Livingston's1990 documentary Paris is Burning was about the world of Harlem drag queens. The title was taken from just one of numerous drag balls Livingston filmed, along with interviews with the more legendary queens. It was a fascinating film, as much an anthropological study of a cultural phenomenon as an entertainment.

Terrell Alvin McCraney, the young playwright who made quite a splash last year with The Brothers Size (Curtainup review) and is the first recipient of the Vineyard's Playwriting Award, takes a fictional approach to the Drag House culture in which the term House is used to define a family unit patterned after the conventional nuclear family with a mother and father untethered to gender, but with enough dysfunction to fit the model that tends to be par for onstage families.

McCraney's multi-faceted plot revolves around two of these Houses. In addition to the struggle to maintain order within the predominant family, The House of Light, as well as the fierce battle to maintain its place as a top prize winner in the glittery competitive events known as Balls, there's a love story between the House of Light's First Daughter, Ms. Nina (Clifton Oliver), and a young man named Eric (Andre Holland) who she picks up during a subway ride. Eric is what you might call a Straight Gay since he's interested in men, and new to trans-gender situations.

If you never saw the Livingston documentary and are unfamiliar with the drag queen balls and the hierarchy prevailing among the participating families, I'd advise you to get to the Vineyard in time, to read their helpful insert about the House Ball scene that includes a glossary of its special lingo. But then, you're probably going to be too busy looking all around and taking in your surroundings. You see, the theater has been re-configured to make you feel that you're at a Ball, complete with a runway that stretches halfway up the center seating section. The little balconies at each side of the theater done up as dressing rooms lead to a second tier upstage performance ramp.

Without some understanding of this strange yet tightly structured world in which you're visually and aurally enveloped courtesy of scenic designer James Schuette and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, the script and Tina Landau's direction are likely to leave you more than a little confused by a first act that piles on introductions to the various characters and sets out the plot points with more color than clarity. It's all eye-poppingly lively thanks to the remarkably costumed (bravo to Toni-Leslie James), bewigged (another bravo to Wendy Parson) performers and the amusing, big voiced Fates 3 (McKenzie Frye, Angela Grovey and Rebecca Naomi Jones), a Greek Chorus of singing and dancing commentators. It's not until the second act, however, when the backstage business segues into an actual Ball that everything begins to make sense and engages us at least somewhat emotionally as well as visually.

Contributing to the show's catching fire and earning that exclamation point in its title is a raucous entrance by the House of Di'Abolique's Serena (Daniel T. Booth, whom drag show aficionados may know as Sweetie) and the truly awesome moves by some of the contestants walking down the ramp. The humiliating fall of Light's Mother Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham) gives a dark twist to the grand Cinderella Ball. Though the Ball is a triumph for Ms. Nina and marks the beginning of her reign as House Mother. For all its glitter and be gay look and sound, Wig Out is a spectacle with ambitions to be a Greek tragedy. But don't expect it to become part of any Greek studies curriculum.

Seating caveat: To make room for the runway up the middle of the orchestra, several rows of seats have been added at either side of the stage. Those sitting there are likely to miss some of the dressing room action.

Age appropriateness caveat: This is not an all ages show. It's for open-minded adults, and would not do well in Vice-Presidential candidate Palin's home town of Wausilla, Alaska.

Wig Out!
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau.
Cast for The House of Light: Erik King (Lucian), Joshua Cruz (Venus), Nathan Lee Graham (Rey-Rey), Clifton Oliver (Ms. Nina [Wilson]) and Glenn Davis (Deity).

Cast for The House of Di'Abolique: Daniel T. Booth (Serena ), Sean Patrick Doyle (Loki)

The Fates 3: McKenzie Frye (Faith), Angela Grovey (Fate), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Fay)

Andre Holland (Eric)
Scenic design by James Schuette
Costume design by Toni-Leslie James
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design by Robert Kaplowitz
Hair, wig and make-up design by Wendy Parson
Stage Manager: Barbara Reo
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street) 212-353-0303
From 9/10/08; opening 9/30/08; closing 10/19/08--exteded to 11/10/08. Running Time: Approx. 2 hours
Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets are $20-$55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer September 26th
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