Drag is where theater and gender politics most clearly intersect. Men have been putting on dresses and makeup since the beginning of Greek drama, which is one of the reasons that theater has always been viewed suspiciously by good God-fearing folk. If a man can convince us he’s a woman onstage, how do we know who he is when he’s off the stage? Or, perhaps even more troubling for some, how does he know who he is?
Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady, a hit at the Humana Festival back in 2006 and now receiving its Seattle premiere at Theater Schmeater, tackles some of these deep issues in a surprisingly sweet and good-natured manner. In an unnamed small Midwest town in 1927, the Elks are staging their annual theatrical fundraiser, and this year they’ve brought in an out-of-town director who insists on staging a very strange story, a melodrama of murder and betrayal among the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy. Naturally, this means that most of the men have to put on the elaborate costumes and makeup of highborn French women. But to their surprise, they find that putting on the dresses and using the powder puffs is less embarrassing than enlightening, and by the time the production’s staged, they’ve all discovered some unexpected truths.
Steve Cooper, the show’s director, laughingly admits he’s on a roll with shows that feature cross-dressing, following an all-female production of The Beaux’ Stratagem for Ghost Light Theatricals and a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Burien Little Theatre. What drew him to the script, he says, is that it looks not only at issues of gender, but at the question of what is or isn’t art. “It’s fascinating that someone can put something up and say ‘This is art,’ and someone else says ‘That’s just a can of soup.'” In the play, which I’ve only read at this point, the God-fearing (but accordion-playing) wife of one of the actors, Dorothy, only reluctantly agrees to her husband’s participation as long as the results are, well, art. “We don’t have time to waste,” she explains to the director. “So if you’re making art in this town, you better make sure it takes you nearer to God.”
Dorothy eventually comes to a new definition of art, and during the course of the play, the men all come to differing ideas of what men and women are. “If there’s a lady in me,” says one of the manliest of the men, “there’s lady in everyone.” Another man starts to find himself attracted to one of his male co-actors, but in a place where homosexuality is unknown, “he really has no label to describe who he is,” explains Cooper. The longer these small-town working men remain immersed in their own inchoate thoughts and emotions, the more out-of-control their own behavior becomes, until soon they’re so far immersed in their roles that it’s all the director and their wives and girlfriends can do to pull them back toward opening night. “I think it’s easier to label things and people nowadays,” says the director, “but I think we’re getting to a point that it’s all getting blurred again, which is part of what this play’s about.”
Part of the challenge facing the actors is that while the play-within-the-play they’re performing is ridiculous and their wigs, heels, and makeup are definitely OTT, to manage Harrison’s quieter meditations about gender and art calls for some subtlety. “I told them at the start: I don’t want a falsetto voice, a caricature,” says Cooper. “You’re performing a play, not just prancing around onstage. I think this play’s more thoughtful-funny than funny-thoughtful. So though it ends up a total slamming-doors farce, our challenge is to make those deeper moments work.”
What makes the play intriguing is the way it takes us to a time and place where our current labels seem inadequate to describe the ambiguities that we all feel when we’re trying to confront our own jumble of X and Y chromosomes. “Most people go through some sort of sexual identity crisis in their lives,” says Cooper. “Who are you and which side, the male or the female side, runs free?” Such questions go past distinctions of gay and straight, or even pants vs. dresses—and as Harrison’s play suggests, they don’t have to be issues for dry academics. Sometimes a good farce can sneak in a few thoughtful moments when and where we least expect it.