Hold the Tiara

A pageant of stereotypes and a showcase of caddishness

It is a pity that Heather K. Wilson, playwright and star of Miss Biracial Upper Midwest 1984, is a woman, as she would have made a terrific drag performer. That's her in the photo, snarling at us from between two fellow contestants, dressed, as she is in the show, in sparkles, spangles, and oversized Afro. She has affected the name Foxy Tann for this persona, and isn't that a drag name?

But, then, her play is a mock beauty pageant, and there is something of the drag act to those as well, with their exaggerated visions of bikini-clad and bouffant-haired femininity. But for their utter humorlessness, beauty-pageant contestants have always seemed like female impersonators to me, whatever their actual gender. And haven't there been a few dozen scandals of the past decades in which pageant winners have turned out to be men in wigs?

Wilson's play, produced by Red Eye and the Theatre Department, is set in Wisconsin in the early Eighties, and is largely an excuse to choreograph some very silly dance routines to such radio favorites of the era as Olivia Newton-John's "Xanadu." The whole of it is set in a bar, hosted by a garrulous but badly-out-of-his-depth part-time bartender named Don Cologne (played, in plaid jacket and straw hat, by Tom Scott), whose only point of reference is the Green Bay Packers. He introduces the various contestants, each representing, rather badly, her own racial or ethnic background, each bearing her own drag name. Maya Funzalo, as an example, is otherwise known as Miss Latin (played by No Pants Dancer Amy Sackett), and she parades across the stage to the Miami Sound Machine.

Wilson's play offers little that is particularly barbed--her satire of various racial stereotypes is often far more silly than it is savage. For instance, Miss Asian, as performed by Deborah Jinza Thayer, alternates between hiding delicate laughter behind an open palm and swinging a pair of nunchaku at two dancers in a Godzilla costume. The play is good fun: The action is interrupted occasionally by the former Miss Biracial Upper Midwest, played by Signe Harriday, who bursts into hysterical tears when she talks of giving up her crown. In one sequence, she carries out an enema bag as the announcer proclaims that one of the evening's sponsors is a local company called "Hillary's High Colonics." As he recites the various details of the business, Harriday blithely presses the bag to her mouth and inflates it.

There may be some analysis of race or gender at work here, but I doubt playwright Wilson meant anything by this little gag. Instead, I think she thought it would be funny, and so she stuck it in. As a result her play offers a few genuine belly laughs but is quite infuriating for anyone looking for a more complex critique of stereotypes. Again, how like a drag show.

In an exercise in utter injustice, this past Sunday I attended a matinee of the current film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and followed it with the Theatre in the Round's production of the same play. I shall not bother to compare and contrast, as the film version, while oddly subdued and uneven in tone, was bound to be better crafted than a stage rendition by a local community theater. And so it was, including some delicious details that would have been impossible in a theater production, including a long opening tableau in which Jack and Algie, Oscar Wilde's epigram-spouting cads, take an extended tour of the London demimonde.

The obscene smile plastered across TRP actor Wade A. Vaughn's face is its own indicator of the salacious. Where the preposterously insouciant Rupert Everett plays Algie as a man without a care or ambition to speak of, Vaughn plays him as a man of beastly cunning, and this is, I must say, a better choice. Vaughn prances his way across the TRP stage, displaying his teeth as though he had just thought of a very good dirty joke, delighting in the mischief that his misbehavior causes, and, in general, behaving like just the sort of fellow that genuinely appreciates a well-crafted sin. While film actor Everett's Algie merely seems at home in London's underworld, stage actor Vaughn looks as though he really would have enjoyed it.

 
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