“Stonewall has come crumbling down and Paris is still burning,” say the swaggerific Greek-inspired fates at the top of Wig Out! “Here, where one night can leave you legendary. Here, where a daughter that once was a son can find family. So as delicately as we can, we bring you a story of a house that was never quite a home.”
You may want to brush up on your vogue-cabulary before saddling up to Wig Out!, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s now decade-plus-old play about gender and sexuality that utilizes the subcultural phenomenon of drag balls as its backdrop. In a co-production between Company One Theatre and American Repertory Theater, Summer L. Williams is at the helm for this regional premiere, which will run at A.R.T.’s Oberon through May 13.
Written in 2004 and first produced in 2008, Wig Out! has been enjoying a resurgence of late due to the success of Moonlight, for which McCraney won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. (His play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, inspired Barry Jenkins’s screenplay.)
But is this newfound interest in Wig Out! warranted? I’m not so sure.
No one can deny McCraney’s uncanny voice (he’s also known for The Brother/Sister Plays, which Company One produced in 2011), but Wig Out! feels like a chaotic conflagration of messy queens (their words) who are stuck in a flimsy plot. Not helping matters is that in Williams’s attempt to utilize Oberon’s space, she has created a sprawling and confusing production that bemuses more than it bedazzles.
The result is a production that is as messy as those messy queens.
Eric (played with effortless charm by Deen Rawlins) seems like just a regular guy who—despite enjoying sex with men—seems overly concerned with his public masculinity. Wilson, on the other hand (an affecting Miles Jordan), who in full makeup hits on Eric on the subway, challenges Eric’s (and, I’d venture, the audience’s) assumptions about who does what in sexual situations and winds up being someone Eric can’t deny. Wilson, by the way, is Ms. Nina at night, a member of the House of Light, one of the two feuding drag ball houses at the center of the story.
Setting aside the Eric-Ms. Nina storyline for a moment (it devolves into melodrama, anyway), the crux of Wig Out! seems to be that the House of Di’Abolique (one of the oldest houses on the scene) has challenged the House of Light and called out a ball—a Cinderella extravaganza—the day of, giving them virtually no time to prepare. (I’m still not sure why this is a big deal.)
The House of Light is run by Rey-Rey (Sidney Monroe), the mother, and Lucian (Juan Carlos Pinedo), the father, longtime enemies of Serena (an unforgettable Nick Dussault), mother of the House of Di’Abolique. Serena has had it in for Rey-Rey ever since she “left the kids gagging” at their last duel. (That means Rey-Rey killed it.)
But it turns out that Eric has some history with Lucian, which complicates matters between him and Wilson, aka Ms. Nina. Oh, and if Rey-Rey gets chopped in one category, she’ll have to step down as house mother.
Are you confused?
What little plot there is becomes impossible to discern, let alone care about. Aside from the honest-to-goodness charm of Deen Rawlins and the tirelessness of the fates (played by Krystal Hernandez, Ally Dawson, and Aliyah Harris), there isn’t a whole lot to find merit in here.
Act Two gives the evening a much-needed shot of adrenaline thanks to Dussault (the former theater critic for Metro Boston) and Shawn Verrier, who plays Locki, trickster of the House of Di’Abolique (and former member of the rivaling house). But the momentary pleasure that stems from their irresistible camp is undercut by the oh-so-seriousness that follows.
Although it touches on issues of gender, sexuality, and race that are important and timely, it does so in a way that feels forced and without integrity. (The Spanglish of Lucian, for example, is nothing but cheesy, and the relentless talk of sexual positions is gratuitous and artificial.) And while there is some vague acknowledgement of the history of drag houses and balls and how, particularly in the 1980s, these houses became places where queer, poor, marginalized people of color could create their own sense of family, those at the center of Wig Out! seem to have life too figured out. No one seems to be invested in their house for any real reason any more than, say, someone would be invested in their place of employment or their local gym.
Tyler Kinney’s costumes inject the evening with some flair, as does Justin Paice’s lighting design, yet Wig Out! is surprisingly boring, especially given its subject matter and setting.
The play—fundamentally flawed on its own—cannot weather the storm of this chaotic production.
I don’t think the kids will be gagging over this one.
WIG OUT! THROUGH 5.13 AT COMPANY ONE THEATRE AT OBERON, 2 ARROW ST., CAMBRIDGE. COMPANYONE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.