Review: Christeene: Trigger (Soho Theatre)
Paul Soileau’s Christeene is a dark, provocative drag act
"Masculinity is dead, y'all" Christeene mewls into the microphone she's just removed from her mouth. Her crowd of converts, new and old, whoop back. Some are as masculine as you can imagine – shaved heads, solid builds, hands stuffed in jean pockets. Still they cheer her on.
Dressed in a black lyrca one-piece cut out, bum on show, black wig askew, Christeene is dark drag; a world away from the camp fabulousness of most queens. Instead of torch songs, she roars hip-hop and rap, pushing us into her signature call and response, "Fix my dick. Fix my dick." Mascara runs down her face; eye shadow up her arsecrack. Her ice blue eyes roll back in her head. It's fucking affronting.
All the more so because Christeene is not something to be looked at from afar: a freak on show. She's here, she's queer and she's coming to get us. "This," Christeene insists, "is not a safe space." Hanging from a bar above the stage, she reaches into the crowd, stroking faces or snogging them. Her spit flies into our midst. Her mic plunges into our mouths – sexual and stifling. Our space – as an audience and as individuals – is constantly invaded. Look sheepish, step back, and you can guarantee Christeene and her "boys" will seek you out.
Though she's Paul Soileau's second drag creation, the first being the primped up Rebecca Havemeyer, Christeene isn't exactly a drag act; not in the way Panti Bliss or Lily Savage are. Soileau, a member of the Texan theatre collective Rude Mechs, has said she taps into a "more aggressive" side of himself, but Christeene is more than just a way for him to take the stage. She's a semi-conscious creation, an instinct honed; precisely put together for a specific purpose. Soileau calls it "terrorist drag" and Christeene is a means of instilling certain ideas and ideologies into an audience. Everything about her is calibrated to have a particular effect on the audience.
She's a mess – but a mess of contradictions. Vulnerable and apparently damaged on the one hand; almighty and fierce on the other. She swerves from apology to righteousness, from aggressive, invasive rap to whimsical meanderings about ponies and castles, the stuff of girlish daydreams. Sexual acts – she rims her backing dancers and runs a finger up her crack – slam into sparkly innocence. Drag's a part of that itself, and Soileau never conceals his own gender, never tries to pass as such, just takes a female shape in female clothing. Christeene's androgyny is a complete male-female mash-up.
Every time Christeene stops singing and starts speaking, there's a trip. Her hoarse, guttural roar cuts to a cracked girlish mewl, Texan and twee: "Hii-ee." It gets a laugh every time. Her physicality shifts too: all-out aggression to itchy awkwardness. This wild thing turns coy. She goes gooey. And when she goes gooey, when we suddenly lean in to listen, that's when she gets her message across.
Essentially, Christeene's a preacher – and one of the most effective around. The message is straight: down with gender binaries, out with societal norms, express your truest self. She presses home the fact that we're all just bodies – all "stinky pussies" and "donuts;" "a hole is a hole is a hole." Anything we put on top of that is dressage and disguise – clothing as a kind of cologne. She implores us to drop our uniforms of masculinity, to strip them off, burn them on a bonfire and just to be.
Everything else she does is out to engineer our receptivity. The music gets into our bodies, starts us singing along. Her invasiveness keeps us on edge, press-ganging us into joining in. There's a shamanistic quality – more pronounced in this second show, with its neon arse-out totem dancers and wire witchdoctor masks – one that sweeps up the room in sync. That trip into twee, when it comes, is a release. All of a sudden, we relax; no longer threatened by this newly meek, inward figure. Even her language – those inner ponies and holey donuts – is deliberately vague, a way of letting each of us find our own associations. My pony is not the same as yours, but we can both ride them off into the sunset.
Think back to the title: Trigger. It's the trigger of trigger warnings, the one that might have a real, unforeseen effect; one that, ordinarily, you'd think undesirable. Something unleashed, something unsafe. That's what Christeene's there for. She's out to break shackles, one gig at a time.
Christeene: Trigger ran at the Underbelly at the Edinburgh Festival until August 28. The show runs at Soho Theatre from 2 to 17th September.