Boundary-pushing play on drag and homosexuality opens

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JUNE 18, 2009 7:21 AM

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The cast members of Dreamwell Theatre’s The Drag sweated and sang their way through rehearsal in the cramped quarters at the First Baptist Church on June 10, utilizing the borrowed attic to the best of their combined abilities.

“It’s a garret for theater,” said first-time director Chuck Dufano about the less-than-ideal practice space.

Since the beginning of May, Dufano and his cast and crew have rehearsed The Drag, a 20-century play written by silver-screen star Mae West. This presentation, a Dreamwell Theatre production, will be performed at the Universalist Unitarian Society, 10 S. Gilbert St., at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and June 26-27.

“The play as a whole is very serious,” Dufano said. “But with [the ’20s-era songs] and drag bits in between, it interjects a lightness. It’s a great commentary, really.”

The performing arts — particularly theater — are known for its support and acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Unsurprisingly, West felt comfortable using her sex-symbol status to educate the public on matters of a delicate, discreet nature. Her first big play, titled Sex, led to her prosecution in 1927 by New York City officials on charges of questionable morality. Her subsequent eight-day incarceration helped propel West into fame. Her next piece, The Drag (written that same year), never had a Broadway première — the Society for the Suppression of Vice (a Prohibtion-era institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public) promised to banish the play.

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The Drag, a severely dated presentation on homosexuality and drag culture, follows a few days in the life of Rolly Kingsbury, a wealthy, unhappily married man whose secret life of queers and queens takes a giant toll on his personal and professional lives.

Seasoned actor (and UI alum) T.J. Besler plays the tormented and confused Kingsbury, using small mannerisms — such as the touch of a hand upon a shoulder — to illustrate his longing for something other than his wilting flower of a wife, performed by Wartburg College graduate Becca Robinson.

Besler, whose résumé is full of various dramas and musicals, cited the diverse cast of The Drag as part of its community appeal.

“There are homosexual cast members, there are heterosexual cast members,” he said. “I think it’s great.”

Though originally written as three acts of straight dialogue, Dufano and music director Elisabeth Ross decided that some ’20s-era music would lighten the darker nature of the play. Almost every character gets a melodic spotlight, belting famous tunes such as “The Man I Love” and “Making Whoopie.” Ross, a UI graduate teaching elementary music in the area, assisted the actors in preparing to burst into song, as actors are wont to do in musical theater.

“There are a lot of really awesome voices here,” Ross said. “I think they make [the song interludes] work.”

Dreamwell is observing June’s Gay Pride Month, producing The Drag in conjunction with Pride Fest activities. Various Iowa City establishments, such as Studio 13, 13 S. Linn St., will host gay-community events, such as tonight’s cabaret and Saturday’s drag show. The celebrations in the city are testament to the community’s support of all of its denizens.

Robinson, The Drag’s female lead and a member of Dreamwell Theatre’s board, applauds the social and political efforts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organizations.

“This struggle has been going on [forever],” she said. “In this current time, when we see some advances are really starting to be made, it’s a reminder of how long they’ve taken to get there, how far they’ve come, and how much further they’re going to go.”

The essence of that era is evident in the language of The Drag. Terms such as “degenerates” and “moral lepers” are used when describing “victims of moral depravity” — namely, the gay men whose lifestyles are described in a physician’s book, one of the key set properties in the production. There is a scene in which a judge argues for homosexuals to be institutionalized, jailed, or sent to an asylum to deal with their “curse.”

Robinson is quick to explain the controversial moment.

“I feel like the dated bits are balanced by the fact that there are very ‘out’ homosexual characters who aren’t ashamed of what they are and who are having a really wonderful time,” she said.

However far society has come, some arguments that the play presents seem strikingly familiar. Debates about feminine versus masculine behavior and nature versus nurture as it relates to sexual development — these discussions are as recent as Miss California Carrie Prejean’s decrowning and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa.

As Iowa has progressed, so has the theater. Though a constant haven for those who feel outcast by societal norms, even the performing arts have held antiquated views on sexual identity — West’s characterizations in The Drag are a prime example. The play may unpleasantly surprise audiences with its terminology, but the innuendo of the delightful drag queens (so honored by the title) draws more than enough laughs from the crowd.

“I think the show has something for everyone,” Besler said. “No matter what point of view you’re coming from.”

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