Don we now our gay apparel: With Bells On is back, in festive mode

James Hamilton, Jake Tkaczyk in With Bells On, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The glamorous lives of drag queens (to be cont’d….).

It’s Sunday morning. And Darrin Hagen is in an unheated garage in Belgravia looking for a disco ball, the official Guys in Disguise disco ball. “We must have lent it to someone,” he sighs. “Someone who forgot to give it back.”

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People, that’s a hint. It had better be there on the night — to wit, Wednesday when Hagen’s award-winning 2010 holiday comedy With Bells On opens on the Varscona stage in a new production. In the course of it, you will see the unlikeliest of urban neighbours — a pipsqueak sad sack of an accountant and a towering drag queen decked out like a glorious giant tannenbaum — not just thrown together but trapped when the elevator in their high-rise apartment building gets stuck between floors.

It’s the Saturday night before Christmas. And the seven-foot human tannenbaum  Natasha is on a tight timetable. If she doesn’t arrive at the Magic Crystal Palace for the Christmas Queen Pageant by midnight, she will forfeit forever her chance to be Christmas Queen. And she is disinclined, to put it mildly, to let that happen. As for the hapless, mild-mannered Ted, on the rebound from a nasty divorce and challenged in the self-esteem department, he’s on a quest, too, albeit a less flashy one. This evening is to be his re-introduction into the scary world of dating.

How does it come to pass that the busy playwright/actor/composer/musician/sound designer/drag queen, who’s of the Scroogian persuasion when it comes to seasonal festivities — “I hate Christmas!” he declares feelingly — has ended up writing a Christmas play? And a Christmas play with a lot of sparkle and charm, to boot? Hagen remembers being tickled by the comic potential of the visuals.“I was at a staged reading, and James Hamilton was one of the actors there. And I thought he and I would look so funny together onstage. That was the image I had in my head….”

Hagen, a husky seven-footer in his high heels, towers over the much smaller, more delicate-looking Hamilton. As Ted says, tentatively, in With Bells On, “you move well for such a … (pause) … statuesque performer.” 

With Bells On premiered at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre in 2010, with Hamilton as Ted and Paul Welch as Natasha. Hagen had originally thought to play Natasha himself, but was happy to cede  the role: “I can’t stand in heels for a full hour; I’m way too lazy….” In  the decade that followed, the comedy has been absent from stages in this country and across the border for only one year. Its American debut in 2018 was in Key West, Fla. in a production directed by the notable Canadian drag performer Christopher Peterson.

The idea of mismatched strangers stuck together against probability and comfort isn’t a new one in theatre, of course. Hagen credits the particular setting to his friend Neon. “We were in the elevator in my apartment building, and it was (lurching) down, as usual. And she said ‘you should write a play about this elevator!’.” And so he did.

The visuals were further enhanced by the reverb from Hagen’s own stage direction: “she’s huge and garish, and looks like a Christmas tree.” Ahah! Similes have a way of becoming costume choices at Guys in Disguise. Trevor Schmidt, a Hagen collaborator on many of the company’s hit shows, has designed a new show-stopper gown for this revival (keynote: red and green tinsel).

If Natasha seems defensive in the (close) company of a stranger, it’s hardly surprising, says Hagen. Hagen played the first Street Performers Festival here as a mermaid, in full regalia. And he still shudders at the memory of “being taunted for two-and-a-half hours by children, the worst couple of hours of my career.” That story is now part of With Bells On.

Hamilton returns to the show with his “killer deadpan,” as Hagen puts it. This time, Jake  Tkaczyk, whom Edmonton audiences saw most recently in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,  is Natasha. It’s not Tkaczyk’s first drag collaboration with Guys in Disguise; he co-starred with Hagen and Schmidt in Don’t Frown At The Gown in 2018. 

“A new version, new actor, new jokes, new stories,” says Hagen. “And a new dress!”  

PREVIEW

With Bells On

Theatre: Guys in Disguise

Written by: Darrin Hagen

Directed by: Darrin Hagen

Starring: Jake Tkaczyk, James Hamilton

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Wednesday through Saturday

Tickets: TIX on the Square (tixonthesquare.ca, 780-420-1757) or at the door

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