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Review Round-up: Critics Wig Out for McCraney?

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Dominic Cook’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new play Wig Out! opened last Friday (28 November 2008, previews from 20 November), at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre downstairs, where it runs until 10 January.

It caps a successful year for young American playwright McCraney, who recently won the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award for his play In the Red and Brown Water which was at the Young Vic Theatre in October. His play The Brother’s Size also returned to the Young Vic this year after premiering to critical acclaim at the same venue in 2007. The cast of Wig Out! includes Danny Sapani, Kate Gillespie, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Holly Quin-Ankrah and Leon Lopez.

For the show, the auditorium has been transformed by designer Ultz into the ‘House of Light’, a “hyper-glamorous and uber-competitive” drag queen refuge where the residents prepare for a catwalk showdown. But while the House are primping and preening, drag queen Nina is wooing the delectable Eric as ‘Wilson’, a de-camped, make-up free ‘straight’ gay man. How can Nina/Wilson strut the thorny divide between opposite genders and differing worlds?

Expectations were high due to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s recent success, but many critics felt that despite the “extravagance of the spectacle” and the “infectious glee” it created, compared to his work at the Young Vic, Wig Out! was “disappointingly superficial” and lacked “the sting and grace of McCraney’s idiomatic writing”. There was praise for the performances, with Kevin Harvey being described as “gloriously grand and heartbroken” while Craig Stein and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett\'s were said to “strut their stuff with great style”. But overall, the critics felt that the production’s plentiful sparkle and glamour could not make up for a lack of depth.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “A lot of big compliments have been flying around the young head of black American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, many of them deserved (none more so than the Evening Standard most promising playwright prize), but Dominic Cooke’s production … is a severe disappointment. There are one or two remarkable performers, but Cooke’s tour of the drag ballroom scene in a Miltonic struggle between the camp caucus in the House of Light and its dynastic rival in the House Di’Abolique (where Billy Carter’s Satan, aka Serena in leather straps and Halloween face paint, despatches Drew Caiden’s punk henchman Loki to join battle on the catwalk) is more Vauxhall Tavern follies than Armani armed warfare. Somehow, the sting and grace of McCraney’s idiomatic writing – so compelling in his Young Vic plays this year, The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water, has been lost. And the socio-cultural dimension of African American gay men struggling and squawking to establish their own hierarchies is completely missing … The climactic Cinderella ball should have been a riot, but the costumes are so poor and low-rent you feel you’ve been hoodwinked into attending a last ditch charity bash for Woolworths. Where’s the glamour, where’s the sexiness, where’s the fun?”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Tarell Alvin McCraney\'s Wig Out! leaves me helplessly searching for parallels. La Cage aux Folles rewritten by Milton as a relaxation after Paradise Lost? Hardy\'s spin on pantomime dames? Neither does justice to the infectious glee that the gritty Afro-American dramatist takes in gay love and, especially, transvestism. Dominic Cooke, who directs, has turned the Court\'s auditorium into a long, shiny catwalk surrounded by spectators who, on opening night, contained a sprinkling of men in spangled dresses, stilettos and elaborate wigs … The dialogue is imaginative, idiomatic but often as hard to follow as the story … This is a festive piece, yet not wholly without McCraney\'s usual bite. Several characters are escaping family hostility, in Nina\'s case a bitter father who tried to castrate him with broken glass. There\'s darkness below the surface - but, this time, very far below.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “It\'s a catty, high-camp, hierarchical set-up that provides an alternative world and a sense of security for those who might often be marginalised or abused in mainstream society. Compared with his recent plays at the Young Vic, The Bothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water, both blessed with emotional depth and a poetic heart, Wig Out! struck me as disappointingly superficial. It\'s true that the gay street argot is often vibrant, and there is trio of wonderfully sexy dancing girls, the Fates Three. But though there are echoes of Milton\'s Paradise Lost in the narrative, and a love story at the play\'s centre between a flamboyant transvestite and a straight-acting gay man that involves some pretty graphic sex scenes, the play is too obsessed with trashy pop culture and flashy superficial appearances to cut deep … Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Alex Lanipekun have a few touching moments as the love interests; Kevin Harvey makes a gloriously grand and heartbroken old queen as the ageing mother of the house, but Danny Sapani needs to bring more fire and brimstone to his role of Lucian, the devious father of the house.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “For all its flash and dazzle, however, the play sidesteps the real issue: how do these characters survive outside the self-created fantasy of the drag-house? There are hints, through the figure of Nina, that sexual ambivalence creates private dilemmas. What one doesn\'t get is any sense of how men whose preferred identity is female exist in the workaday world. In Dominic Cooke\'s production, the play\'s flimsiness is disguised by the extravagance of the spectacle. We see Kevin Harvey\'s touching Rey-Rey - who claims: ‘Even though I may not have the glow of youth, I have the glam of age’ - transformed into a queen of the night. Craig Stein\'s Venus, flashing his Lurex knickers, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett\'s Nina strut their stuff with great style. Alex Lanipekun\'s Eric gazes on with a fascinated bewilderment. But finally, the play\'s questions about what is ‘real’ in terms of gender seem somewhat forced. In the end, this is less a philosophical inquiry than a gaudy hip-hop panto.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Wig Out! by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, winner of this year’s Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award, throws much glitter but little piercing light upon the complexities of erotic life for cross-dressing, gay, black men and their lovers … The best aspect of the show is its novelty value. It absorbs and displays a range of youthful influences. A mock –classical, genuine all-girl Chorus, The Fates, speak scene directions, talk cool and sing in Supremes style, presiding over the action, in which lip-synched songs, voguing, hip-hop and the climactic catwalk fashion competition loom bright not to say dazzling … Ultz’s set, dominated by a long, elevated cat walk, protrudes like a big tongue into the auditorium. Beglamoured drag ball competitors strut their stuff with spectacular, lip-syncing verve in cabaret club style and Cooke’s swinging production. Wig Out! however, in the last resort, makes too light and little of how a black New Yorker survives when he wants to be more than a bit of a lady.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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