Arts on Real Theater, through Jan. 3
Running time: 2 hrs.
Gender identification is a slippery subject. Some academics spend their entire careers theorizing why gender is so culturally attached to definitions of masculinity and femininity. Some proclaim that sexuality and gender is a spectrum, rather than a polarity. Some say gender is malleable and possibly liberating. Seeing men cross-dressed as beauty queens in Naughty Austin's production of the musical comedy Pageant could be one of those liberating moments, ironically charged with anxiety and unease.
For those peripherally outside the "trans" communities, Pageant requires some adjustment in theatrical standards. There is a mild disruption at seeing outrageous gowns, overcooked make-up, tall heels, and big wigs on men who are all behaving "feminine": voices raised soprano and breathy, wrists flipping, hips jutting to the sides, hands expressive. Things get humorous when the dissonance becomes what the show is about: men attempting, sometimes fumbling, with extreme feminine beauty and grace in a "Miss Glamouresse" contest. Having men perform these heightened gender roles inverts meaning, and the show is simultaneously a comment on the ludicrousness of pageantry and pomp, and a hardcore tribute. These menacing competitions glorify the impractical challenge to be stunningly done-up all the time. That challenge is intensified when men, as opposed to women, are forced to endure such horrors.
The show is full of gags and stunts performed by the contestants diligently. The ladies are adorned with sashes representing geographic regions in the U.S. Tyler Rhodes as Miss Bible Belt heartily bolts out an audience-clapping song, "I'm bettin' on Jesus, 'cause He's bettin' on me." Miss Deep South's talent is puppet ventriloquism, done sloppily yet still quite funny. Again, standards are turned upside down. Do I want Miss Deep South to be really good at this "talent," even though I despise beauty contests and their sick legacy of superficiality? If these acts, like flaky Miss West Coast's interpretive dance, were done with complete seriousness, I think it would be a much darker show. As it is, I did laugh quite often, mostly because the whole freaking thing is over-the-top, ridiculous, unbelievably corny, slipshod, and at times, genuinely funny.
Director Stuart Moulton's blocking during musical bits had the actors own the entire stage, sometimes pulling off fairly complicated choreography if only due to the heels. Frankie Cavalier is the charming, dancing and singing emcee, played with gusto and energy by Zach Thompson. The stage has a runway, and some audience members seated in cabaret tables can be guest judges in the contest. To judge is the most gratifying aspect, to feel the power to eliminate the useless and applaud the best "woman" on stage. According to historical tradition, she must be cordial, perky, full of smiles, nurturing, look hot in swimwear, and be good at something. None of these qualities were altogether complete in the "ladies," but it's tongue in cheek. There still remains a curious need to see them perform gender with superior ability. But that's impossible. They are not women. Pageant reflects the "real" pageant with a funhouse mirror, and the experience is worthwhile; if anything, it might provide chewy theory to swallow.
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