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The Legend of Georgia McBride delivers a how-to of drag
The most fabulous presence in The Legend of Georgia McBride isn't the straight man who becomes a drag queen, his pregnant wife, or his drag mother (though all three are pretty awe-inspiring). No, that honor goes to a clothing rack.
Usually a tool that's kept backstage, this particular play, which runs through October 4 at the Lucille Lortel in a production from MCC, gives the clothing rack its time in the limelight by placing it front and center for a majority of the show.
"I love that clothing rack!" enthuses playwright Matthew Lopez, whose show follows an out-of-work Elvis impersonator who discovers he has a hidden talent for female impersonation. "We quickly realized that it was going to be a tool for moving the story ahead in terms of time – of how this drab, probably mice-infested dressing room that houses a 27-year-old straight Elvis impersonator can become a drag dressing room."
Every time the rack glides onstage, it becomes more and more glamorous, going from a dowdy collection of old t-shirts in the first scene to a full-on glamazon explosion, complete with sequined gowns, sky-high wigs, and a hat festooned with giant flowers.
And those aren't just decorative items. In Georgia McBride, the performers put on their drag in full view of the audience, grabbing butt pads, corsets, bras, and wigs. Wig and make-up specialists also come onstage during the show to glam up Dave Thomas Brown, who plays Casey, the main character.
That's only fitting, since one of the aims of Georgia McBride is to take a closer look at the performers behind the faces. "I wanted to get people to look at drag not as something that you do for fun on a Friday night, but as an art form with rules and history," says Lopez.
To that end, the script draws on his experience growing up in Panama City, FL (where the play is also set). At 16, he would sneak into the only gay bar in town and hang out with the drag queens, watching them put their foundation garments and faces on. "My introduction to drag as a teenager was from the inside out," he says. And so in writing Georgia McBride, he wanted to give that same backstage experience to the audience.
Georgia McBride is less a drag show than a how-to for dressing in drag, for both audiences and the creators. In Brown's case, dressing up in form-fitting female clothing was an experience he took to with great enthusiasm. "It's just fun to play dress-up," he says.
Similar to Casey, Brown is also a straight man who has never done drag before, so it's been an educational experience putting on a dress and wearing heels. During the show, Brown's costumes include an elaborate Elvis get-up and close to a dozen drag outfits (including something he calls a "Beyoncé flame jumpsuit.")
"Everything is fitted to within an inch of my life," he says. "I haven't been able to eat too much, and I haven't been able to lift weights at the gym. Because a little bit of an inch means that I can't get into these quick changes fast enough."
And what quick changes they are. The three drag queens in Georgia McBride have to go from female to male and back again multiple times, sometimes in full view of the audience. Since Brown's quick changes range from 20 seconds to 2 minutes, he can't go full beat (meaning he can't apply a full face of drag make-up, which can take up to two hours). Therefore, costume designer Anita Yavich and makeup and wig designer Jason Hayes have collaborated to make sure the clothes do most of the talking.
For Yavich, who has never designed for a drag show before, the process has not been as simple as getting a bigger-sized dress and putting it on a man. Instead, there has been tailoring, rearranging of pads, and then more tailoring. "The proportions are weird on a man," she explains. "Their torsos are longer, so you have to cheat their waist up higher. A man's shoulder is wider than a woman's, so you have to get a size 16 dress, even though their torso measurements are really a 12. Otherwise it doesn't work."
But when it all comes together, the effect is transformative, blurring the lines between male and female and showing that there's no harm in having both masculine and feminine traits.
Case in point: From working on Georgia McBride, Brown has learned to appreciate how pretty he looks as a woman. "I really look like my mom and my sister," he says happily. "It's kind of an honor and kind of a beautiful thing. Because often times, people always say I look like my dad."
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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Dave Thomas Brown in full regalia.
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