3 out of 4 stars
AT THE WAKE OF A DEAD DRAG QUEEN is the first production of Season 2 at The Story Theatre and is directed by Mikael Burke. Courtney Berringers (given name: Anthony Knighton) has recently died from complications due to AIDS and welcomes you to her wake in 2019 rural Georgia. No black frocks, no perfumed flowers and no crying – this celebration of life is one for the books.
Author Terry Guest stars in the one-act, two-hander play that delves deep into Blackness, queerness and the fine art of drag. It explores identity and personal narrative. . The candid conversations that break the fourth wall is simply wonderful and the hopping between timelines of memories, imagination, and the unknown. Guest the 2019/20 Emerging Playwright in Residence at The Story Theatre and holds much of the budding new company’s values to heart in this production. On the back of the playbill there is the HIV/STI surveillance report in 2018.
The backdrop of Spanish moss hanging above a boudoir dressing room emits classic elegance the south is known for complete with chandelier. A raise platform on half the stage allows the blocking in the duet performance to have a full range of choreography and movement. Alyssa Mohn does a wonderful job with capturing the essence of our main character through a visual representation in their scenic design. The struggle between what we show externally and internally are all present among the moss and gowns. There are mirrors upstage pieced together forces not only a mimicked imaginary drag show audience, but a self-reflection for these characters on top of forcing the audience to see their own reactions and reflections. As we watch, the audience is poised to reflect on our roles in this individual’s story – the hardships, the similarities, the differences.
Paul Michael Thomson charmingly portrays Vickie Versailles who challenges our main character in a tumultuous relationship. Thomson bring an empathetic honesty to their portrayal. The eye contact and comfortable blocking never misses a beat. Thomson is a proud founding member and Co-Artistic Director of The Story Theatre. As an actor, Paul Michael has worked with Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and others, while his plays have been produced by Other Theatre, Arc Theatre and more. Costume designer Uriel Gómez really hones into each of these characters and the abundance of variety this show holds. The costumes are wonderfully and compared to the crop top and shorts combo or dressing gown Gómez illustrates how our characters want to be read. The glitz and glam to the stripped down exposure that comes with misfortune.
A few particular moments that are a credit to the writing is the structure between southern culture, race and drag. “I am an endangered species” being a black man in the south participating in drag. The hard hitting exploration of what that means really encompasses the entirety of the work. Further, Guest mirrors two scenes against one another that is utterly provoking. The anatomy of drag is pulled, ripped and torn apart in a desperate need for acceptance and lighthearted escapism.
Although I may not be this productions audience, I find Guest’s writing to be filled with valued meaning and potency. The lens is very filtered, but touches on relationships, friendships, isolation, bad decisions and regret that many people can find themselves in. The humor and queer ferocity subside as the work moves on and the vulnerability emerges that will steal your heart.
AT THE WAKE OF A DEAD DRAG QUEEN runs now through September 22nd at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. For more information or tickets, please visit thestorytheatre.org
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!