By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In a week when inclusivity, tolerance, equality took a major body blow in the Alberta election, it was particularly moving — almost uncanny, really — to see The Empress and the Prime Minister at Theatre Network.
The latest from playwright/ actor Darrin Hagen, premiering in a Bradley Moss production, is an homage to real-life (and little-known) activist drag queen ted northe who threw off the cloak of invisibility in a brave and strikingly regal showbiz way.
It’s his story, and it’s the story of an unexpected collaboration between activism, drag, and politics on the long, stony, agonizingly incremental (as we’ve just been reminded), march of progress. And it involves the stepping up of a charismatic young justice minister whose sense of justice and “a just society” was offended by the systemic persecution of homosexuality: one Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Our first sight of the Empress of Canada (Hagen), in full queenly regalia, is in a witty drag number set, amusingly, to an iconic Canuck anthem. “Spread your tiny wings and fly away,” sings ted northe, flinging stuffed birds our way in a cannonade of feathers. Our first sight of Trudeau (Joey Lespérance) is a shrewd shrug of a man, intrigued by the source of a letter-writing campaign that has deluged his desk.
Hagen’s play unfolds — and that, for once, is the right word — in northe’s biographical flashbacks “told” to Trudeau and, as he steps back into and out of his past, populated by the dexterous Lespérance in a gallery of characters. The making of a drag queen and resistance fighter from a questing young gay Canadian nurse and part-time Arthur Murray dance instructor in the ‘50s is fascinating. And it’s chilling in its ruthlessness and cruelty. In a year when it would take a lot to surprise anyone about the corruption in the Catholic clergy, the opera-loving opium-smoking Monsignor in L.A. who tries in the end to run over his rebellious, too-young Canadian lover with his car might still make you blink.
The emotional fabric of The Empress and the Prime Minister is the interplay between a passionate, outraged torch-bearer on the one hand, and a wry, understated assessor of the status quo on the other. One talks — and occasionally speechifies in a way that even a magnetic performer like Hagen can’t quite make sound like someone in conversation. The other listens, and throws in the odd question or prompt or practical aside: “politics is about timing” or “churches have influence” or “why do you dress like a woman?” northe’s answer to the latter is barbed: “ I dress like a women; I don’t need to be a woman: I already know what it’s like to be a second-class citizen….”
“Your passion makes you care. But your reason is what will make you effective,” says Trudeau to northe. “See the change happening. And then figure out how to exploit it.” The combination is instructive, though perhaps this week in Alberta isn’t the most encouraging test case for effecting change.
northe’s discovery of flamboyance and pride after growing up in an identity shrouded in shame and secrecy is chronicled, as you might expect, with authentic commitment in Hagen’s performance. Who better to deliver “the revolution is finally here…. I need to find something to wear.”? The actor/playwright/activist grew up in small-town Alberta and as a teenager moved to the big city, and the drag queen life.
In performance, Hagen’s towering size actually gives him a certain poignance as he re-creates northe’s wide-eyed boyhood self, the gay kid who discovers something exciting and something scary about the big wide world in the time he spends south of the border (he studied nursing in the U.S. because in Canada at the time you couldn’t be a boy and a nurse).
Last seen here in such L’UniThéatre productions as Fort Mac, Lespérance is a master of the gallic Trudeau shrug. His lean features conjure that stylish intelligence without crude impersonation. And he bites zestfully into a selection of characters, including northes’s arch, sassy drag mentors Mama José and Auntie Mame who (to be vague and not spoil your fun) enter with pizzaz. In this they are assisted by sparkly glam (and copious fake hair) from designer Tessa Stamp. The bi-level design, by Stamp and lighting whiz Scott Peters, works well for the double-optic of showbiz and Canadian politics.
Lespérance populates the Leader’s debate and the Bill C150 arguments in the House (conjuring Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Robert Stanfield, Réal Caouette) simultaneously) in scenes amusingly staged by director Moss.
This being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, we know from the outset, on the political side, how things will turn out in 1969. And The Empress and the Prime Minister is at pains to explain what this historic moment does not mean for the lives of the LGBTQ community. The story of pioneer activist ted northe, though, is something remarkable — and new for many of us I venture to say, speaking for myself.
The play is unafraid of explaining its own importance — and there are occasional moments when it seems a bit over-written. On the other hand, it’s woven with cheeky asides and humorous annotations. “Heavy lies the wig that wears the crown,” northe tells us in a theatrical enterprise that sets about shedding light on the activist heart of drag.
“I’ve always been proud of my country… always loved it,” northe tells Trudeau near the end, “But I still need to learn to trust it.” I guess we understand more fully than ever just what that means.
12thnight.ca talked to playwright Darrin Hagen and his co-star Joey Lespérance HERE.
The Empress & the Prime Minister
Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy
Written by: Darrin Hagen
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Darrin Hagen, Joey Lespérance
Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through May 5
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca