Stage Door Review 2023

The Gig

Monday, March 27, 2023


by Mark Crawford, directed by Morris Panych

Theatre Aquarius, Dofasco Centre, Hamilton

March 10-25, 2023

Fonda to Laura: “You’ll make a great politician ... not a compliment”

Theatre Aquarius is presenting the world premiere of Mark Crawford’s latest comedy, The Gig, and it signals a change of tone for him. Crawford’s previous plays from his first Stag and Doe (2014) to Chase the Ace (2021), the last before The Gig, have all been marked by buoyancy and optimism. In The Gig, Crawford has important things to say and doesn’t care if their effect is more serious than funny. That’s as it should be. Comedy throughout history has been a vehicle for exploring serious topics and it’s exciting to see Crawford do so too. The show is blessed with a starry cast and a dazzling production and, one hopes, it will be seen as widely as Crawford’s previous works.

Some might say that The Gig is a comedy about drag, but that is not strictly true. It is actually a serious play about drag wrapped in a comedy about politics. The action begins with three drag queens in the midst of an argument. Terri Tucker has asked two other drag queens, Fonda De Behrs and Ms. XXXBox, to join him for a fundraising gig. Terri has neglected to tell them the gig is for a Conservative candidate. Hearing this both Fonda and XXXBox are prepared to walk. There’s no way they want to perform their acts for a group that has traditionally oppressed them.

Worse than this, however, it soon comes out that that candidate is none other than Terri’s sister, Laura Nelson. Terri regrets that he had to deceive Fonda and XXXBox, but he wonders why the two can’t just think of the gig as another job. After all, Terri knows that Fonda needs the money and that XXXBox needs the experience.

Trying to calm the waters is Laura’s campaign manager Karyn Sloane, who just loves drag and whose idea it was to hire drag queens for the entertainment. Being pro-drag does not soften Fonda and XXXBox. One aspect of their professional that they lament is how drag has gone mainstream and has become simply a cute sort of beauty pageant for straights to enjoy. The subversiveness and the political content have gone missing which makes mainstream drag so palatable to a non-gay audience.

Laura herself tries to save the situation. It’s clear that she sincerely wants to distinguish herself from her far right predecessor Jim Wright. Laura wants the Conservative party to be diverse and inclusive. Although she hates drag itself, she is happy to have her brother and his colleagues appear at her fundraiser.

Laura and Terri have never got along and her dissing his profession puts him in the camp with Fonda and XXXBox. The question at the end of Act 1 is whether the trio will simply do their gig and forget its context or will they bring back the subversiveness and political content they feel mainstream drag has been missing.

This is a very different type of comedy for Crawford and not just because it includes drag. He clearly is angered by the notion of gay people as entertainment. It is debasing and therefore not an acceptance of gay people as equals. It’s rather like the situation where Black people could be accepted as performers and sportsmen but not next door neighbours. In Bed and Breakfast (2015), Crawford showed how a gay couple faced homophobia in a small town. In The Gig, Crawford takes the subject of homophobia to a much higher level and at this political level it is not a subject that is funny in any way.

Where Crawford finds comedy is in the machinations of Karyn and Laura to keep the fundraiser’s entertainment on track, and the determination of the entertainers to give their employers a taste of drag beyond the easily palatable kind they were expecting.

As in his other plays, Crawford has created a great array of characters and under Morris Panych’s direction they work together as a solid ensemble. Thanks to Jackie Chau’s costume design and Karma Kameleon’s drag consultancy, what the actors wear are ideal extensions of their personalities.

With his three drag queens, Crawford gives us examples of three types of drag from different periods. Fonda De Behrs, who has come out of retirement, represents the glamorous queen mama that most people would associate with someone like Danny La Rue. Terri Tucker has a regular job and is a weekend queen, younger than Fonda but the one who organizes events and views drag as an art. Ms XXXBox is what some call an orphan queen, a young person starting out in drag who has talent but has not quite settled on what style of drag to choose. In The Gig XXXBox’s personality is best expressed in dance, rather than song as Terri’s or story as Fonda’s.

Steven Gallagher shows his character has two contrasting personalities. As Jeremy, his real name, Gallagher gives us a rather ordinary guy – not camp, not mean, not haughty. Instead, Gallagher shows that Jeremy is primarily a brother who longs finally to be appreciated by his sister. Gallagher shows that putting on drag allows Terri to do and say all the things that Jeremy cannot. Where Jeremy tends to be introspective, Terri is an outgoing good-time gal. While drag artists usually lipsynch, Gallagher is a musical theatre performer and it is a pleasure to hear him sing.

Neil Barclay is superb as Fonda. As the oldest of the three Fonda has had the greatest experience, both good and bad. Her retirement was brought on by an addiction to drugs and alcohol which she has now overcome. Barclay brings Fonda’s greater experience to bear on everything Fonda says and shows that Fonda can effortless overrule any of the more foolish ideas of his colleagues.

Crawford gives Fonda a great monologue in Act 2. Fonda begins by setting the scene in 1987 when Tiffany’s song “I Think We’re Alone Now” as a hit. Barclay, of course, is also no stranger to musicals and it is also a pleasure to hear him sing rather than lipsynch the song. Gradually, the monologue morphs into something more serious about politically supported attacks on gay men even though homosexuality is not a crime in Canada. What is so impressive about Barclay’s performance is how he ever so gradually unleashes Fonda’s underlying anger that we have noticed from the first until it becomes undisguised rage. It is a brilliant piece of acting and won spontaneous applause from the audience, both, I think, for the message of his speech and for the undeniable power he used in delivering it.

Jaime Lujan as Ms. XXXBox is the only one of the three who is also an actual drag performer. He uses the name “Lucinda Miu”. XXXBox already has a reputation for being difficult at her young age, and Lujan shows us why. He gives us a character who is easily worked up and hard to calm down. Lujan also demonstrates that Ms. XXXBox also has her own sublimated anger that she releases in the form of the fierce physicality of her dancing.

The character of the stage technician Dani, played by Natascha Girgis, is there to prove that drag is not only a male pursuit and that women can have a look and attitude completely opposite to the skirt-suited Laura and Karyn. Girgis makes Dani a fine comic creation even if the action never allows us to know her well.

On the straight and conservative side is Lisa Horner as Karyn. As usual Horner can inflect her voice to make any remark ironic. This she does not do at first when she shows us Karyn awestruck with meeting real live drag queens, comically unaware that the kind of anodyne drag she loves is exactly the kind the tree drag queens despise. As events appear to be trending downward, Horner uses her signature irony as Karyn increasingly toward Laura and the uninvited former MP Jim Wright.

Philippa Domville makes Laura a for more complex character than the drag queens’ objections to her would suggest. It does appear that Laura really wants to distinguish herself from Jim Wright’s policies and that she really does want the Conservative party to be more inclusive. She plays Laura as so sincere that we start to wonder whether Laura and Jeremy are caught in adversarial roles from long ago that they just can’t shake off. We also start to wonder, strange as it may seem, whether the drag queens’ typing of all Conservatives as being the same is not really another form of prejudice.

Jim Mezon has fun as the glad-handing former MP Jim Wright. We can see from his faux smile immediately how superficial people would love him and people with a grievance would hate him. Although Crawford has Wright appear as a comic complication to Laura and Karyn’s micromanaged plan for the evening, Crawford also has Wright turn up to tell his biggest opponent, Fonda, that he has changed. Like Domville’s Laura, Mezon’s Wright does this with such sincerity that we have to ask ourselves whether this is just another ploy, as Fonda thinks, or whether it is true.

This encounter brings up one of the biggest questions of the play. Fonda views Wright as an irredeemable villain because of actions he took in 1987. It is now 2023. Do we hold onto our rage about actions that happened then and the tragic consequences they had, or is there some time when we have to let go of our anger? This question applies to both sides of the divide in Crawford’s play. As one character puts it, “Do we pick up our toys and go home or do we stay in the room and have a conversation?” As Fonda says, “The minute we can’t both be in the room we’re doomed”.

Before The Gig, Crawford had nothing more to prove as a comic playwright. He has a gift for many types of comedy. With The Gig he shows that he can write comedy that expresses darker views and asks even deeper questions than before. It is a bold move but one that the audience seemed to support 100%. Theatre Aquarius is the first company to present The Gig is what is termed a “rolling world premiere”. Let’s hope that The Gig rolls into Toronto, where the infamous bathhouse raids of 1981 have not been forgotten, and when our neighbour to the south is rescinding gay rights and, incredibly enough, criminalizing drag. If the Steel City audience is any indication, the response to the show in Hogtown would be tremendous.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jaime Lujan as Ms. XXXBox, Neil Barclay as Fonda De Behrs and Steven Gallagher as Terri Tucker; Steven Gallagher as Terri Tucker; Lisa Horner as Karyn, Philippa Domville as Laura and Jim Mezon as Jim Wright; Neil Barclay as Fonda De Behrs, Morris Panych, Mark Crawford and Jaime Lujan as Ms. XXXBox. © 2023

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