by Gail M. Burns
Matthew Lopez’ work was first introduced to Dorset Theatre Festival audiences in 2013 when then brand new Artistic Director Dina Janis directed his play The Whipping Man, a drama exploring racial tensions in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Now Stephen Brackett is directing Lopez’ comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, a very different play about survival and identity in the modern American South.
“The show is very much about reinvention,” Brackett said. “Casey, a struggling young Elvis impersonator, becomes a star drag act out of necessity but discovers a lot about himself in the process.”
David Turner is playing Miss Tracy Mills who helps Casey find his drag persona. “I explain to people that this play is very much like Pygmalion, only the core question isn’t can Eliza pass as an aristocrat but can Elvis pass as Ru Paul.”
“I am good friends with Matthew Lopez and all of his plays are crazy different from one to the next,” Brackett said. “It makes you ask ‘How could this one playwright be writing all these different plays?’ but there is a connective tissue and LGBTQA+ themes run through all his plays. There’s a real celebration of that voice in this play.”
“These characters are not well to do people. They are struggling to survive and making do with what they’ve got, which is a very American story,” Turner added.
“But this is also a very entertaining and very funny comedy. I hope that the audience really loves these characters,” Brackett said. “We have a very talented group of actors. This is a story about people who wouldn’t normally be together are forced to work together in the same room for a common goal of survival, and they discover that they are really very good at it.”
Turner, Joey Taranto who plays Casey, and Jon Norman Schneider who plays the third drag artiste in the show, Rexy, have experience in drag. Taranto appeared in the original cast of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots. Inspired by his grandmother’s philosophy that it is really stupid not to know how to do something that you can easily learn, Turner sought instruction in drag and has used his drag persona in unusual ways, such as a personal appearance in drag at his high school, and a turn as the Edgartown Lighthouse in a parade on Martha’s Vineyard.
“The best part of drag is that you really do transform – you put on a new face and reshape your body – but it is also a lot of work,” Taranto explained. “My run in Kinky Boots gave me a whole new respect for women – the shaving and the plucking and the heels…! Before I became an actor I wanted to do special effects make-up, and learning drag make-up incorporates many of the same techniques.”.
Lopez’ script calls for many very rapid changes from conventional dress to drag and back again. As this interview occurred cast and crew were just at the start of tech week, figuring out the logistics of those changes. “Drag is not just putting on a dress, a wig, some high heels, and make-up, there is a lot that goes on under the dress that aids the illusion,” Taranto explained. Not all of those secrets, some quite intimate, will be revealed on stage.
“Stephen has a great eye for how much a the audience wants to understand of how drag happens,” Turner said.
“There is a sharp political edge,” Brackett added. “The story unfolds in a fairly conservative part of northern Florida. We get to explore what drag means, what being a straight man doing drag means, what it means to feel gay on stage.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride is a play with pre-recorded music, which will help cover some of the costume changes. “It’s lip synch or swim!” Turner joked.
There is one cisgender woman in the play, Casey’s wife, Jo, played by Vasthy Mompoint. Early in the play Jo discovers that she and Casey are expecting their first child, just as Casey loses his Elvis gig, precipitating the character’s desperation to make something of himself to support his growing family. But he lacks the courage to confess to Jo how he is earning the money he is suddenly bringing home.
“I have great empathy for the character of Jo,” Brackett said. “She is six months pregnant when she finds out her husband has been lying to her and that leads her to ask whether he’s been lying about his sexuality too. But Lopez wraps up this triumphantly gay play in a straight wrapper. In the end it’s a very conventional love story about young straight couple learning how to be honest in a relationship and trying to learn how to be adults.”
Taranto shared his own journey of discovery “I’m a minister’s kid from Louisiana and from the time I could understand language I was handed my gender norms, my social norms, my religion, and I knew I didn’t fit in with them. So I started questioning, ‘Why do you believe this? And they couldn’t tell me. That’s just what they were taught. Casey has to ask himself some of those to find out who he is and what he loves.”
The Dorset Theatre Festival presents
The Legend of Georgia McBride
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Stephen Brackett
at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT.
The box office may be reached by calling (802) 867-2223 ex. 2 Tuesday through Saturday 12-6pm (8pm on performance days). For more information, or to purchase tickets online, visit Dorset Theatre Festival’s website at dorsettheatrefestival.org.