Through Aug. 20
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The smitten protagonists in “Wig Out!,” the current Studio Theatre production, meet in a cute way.
They’re on the subway when drag queen Ms. Nina (Michael Rishawn), after a night on the town, asks attractive stranger Eric (out actor Jaysen Wright) if he’s gay.
Eric reluctantly says he is but adds that he likes men. So Nina sheds her wig and assorted drag to reveal Wilson, a well-muscled young man with a shaved head. After a long second look, Eric rethinks the situation and the pair goes home together.
But it’s not happily-ever-after for Eric and Ms. Nina. Drag is a huge part of Ms. Nina’s life. She’s a key member of the House of Light where she’s required to play glamour girl at all times. But she also wants Eric to be a part of this world and that proves problematic.
It’s through Eric’s eyes that the audience peers into Harlem’s Ball culture, the decades-old, mostly black LGBT subculture in which participants from different houses walk for trophies and prizes at balls. The events’ fiercely competitive categories include “Femme Queen Realness,” “Butch Queen Realness,” “Legendary/Iconic” and “Face.” Drag balls first came to mainstream attention through the unforgettable 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.”
Out, African-American playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s take on this world is poetic, poignant and loads of fun. Rife with romance, rivals, infighting and lust, the House of Light is never boring. But it’s still a safe haven for its members and allows a tremendous outlet for positive creativity and performance.
The standouts in a powerhouse cast are House of Light elders Lucian (Michael Kevin Darnall) and Rey-Rey (Jamyl Dobson). House father Lucian is a sexual predator who’s after the house’s drag queens and butch gays too. For Lucian, it’s not about sex and much less about romance. Backstory reveals his conquests are prompted by a need for power and manipulation. Without doubt Lucian is the darkest, slimiest resident in the House of Light and Darnall plays it superbly.
Life is becoming increasingly difficult for house mother Rey-Rey. Her legendary drag career is flagging and she’s finding it difficult to give up the crown gracefully. Rey-Rey still yearns for the limelight and the status that ball wins brings. Her challenge is to go with dignity.
Other House of Light subplots include rising star Venus (Edwin Brown III) and her butch boyfriend DJ Deity’s (perfectly played by out actor Desmond Bing) ongoing effort to resolve a rocky relationship. House happenings are diligently reported by a Greek chorus/tight urban girl group named for the Fates: Faith (Dane Figueroa Edidi), Fate (Melissa Victor) and Faye (Isabel Jasa).
After intermission, “Wig Out!” takes you to the ball. And while it’s challenging to bring that kind of excitement and raw energy to Studio’s black box space, the production’s design team, led by director Kent Gash, does an admirable job. Set designer Jason Sherwood creates a ball venue with elevator doors and a cruciform runway festooned with drag world mementos — newspaper clipping, old invites, feathers and snapshots. And Frank Labovitz costumes the cast in a range of street drag and competition gowns. David Lamont Wilson supplies a hot soundscape against which the house’s story unfolds.
Things really kick off when sassy jester Loki (Alex Mills) from the rival House of Di’Abolique delivers a challenge to compete in a high-stakes ball. This small but showy part gives Mills a chance to show his mindboggling contortionist skills. And then the second act is mostly ball hosted by emcee Serena (Frank Britton) from the House of Di’Abolique. She’s a sort of wild mix of kabuki and German punk rock goddess Nina Hagen
McCraney is one of Studio’s most produced writers. Memorable works include his trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays.” He deservedly received an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Moonlight” adapted from his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
Penned in 2006, “Wig Out!” doesn’t have the lyricism and resonance of some of McCraney’s other works. But it’s an entertaining and fun ride — perfect for Studio’s summer slot.