Arts & Culture » Theater

Let's play dress up!

by Jim Gladstone

Costumes are a big part of the attraction of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," from Theatre Rhino. Photo: Courtesy Rhino
Costumes are a big part of the attraction of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," from Theatre Rhino. Photo: Courtesy Rhino  

Harken back, dear friends, to a time when "RuPaul's Drag Race" was nary a glint in your metallic MAC eye-shadow, and a jock in a frock was an assault on propriety.

In 1994, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" arrived on movie screens. The Terence Stamp/Guy Pearce/Hugo Weaving romp about two drag queens and a trans woman taking a raucous road trip became a gay cult favorite. Over a decade later, its musical theater adaptation was a smash in its native Australia and a considerable success on the West End and Broadway.

But amidst the show's conversion to a mainstream spectacle - its name shortened to simply "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" - it lost not only "The Adventures" but also some of its adventurousness, its fierce camp filed down to anodyne silliness as producers cautiously courted straight audiences. Well into the London run, I attended a Saturday performance of "Priscilla" and found myself surrounded by coops-worth of hen parties. And when the national tour played San Francisco, I found it cartoonish and sterile.

"Our production is plenty gay," said John Fisher, the executive director of Theatre Rhinoceros, which brings its homegrown, homo-owned "Priscilla" back for a second engagement from May 26 through June 30, after a critically acclaimed sold-out run last year. "We're a gay theater, for god's sake.

"This is a show with two main characters who are gay young men and very much still in the game. Their sexuality is an important part of who they are," Fisher said. "Our choreography is raunchier than the Broadway version, and we have interaction with the audience, including lap dancing."


Dresser John F. Karr, actor Rudy Guerrero, and Theatre Rhinoceros executive director John Fisher, backstage at a Rhino rehearsal space. Photo: Courtesy Rhino  

"And the costumes!" he exulted, standing amidst racks of designer Robert Horek's 200-plus outfits and mountains of accessories at the Rhino's Van Ness Avenue rehearsal space last week. "Our boy costumes are much more revealing, and our drag outfits - you know, as a queer theater, it's our responsibility to be fabulous."

Fabulous costumes are also among the hallmark attractions of "When Pigs Fly," the baby-back-rib-tickling revue now at the New Conservatory Theatre through June 10.

Wes Crain, one of three costume designers who collaborated on "Pigs," works full-time in the wardrobe department of the San Francisco Ballet. "Sometimes the main purpose of costumes is really just to keep people from being naked on stage," he lamented. "So having a chance to work on a show like this is a dream. I mean, sometimes the script is really just an excuse to bring out an amazing costume."

The original 1996 Off-Broadway production of "Pigs" was conceived of by the real-life Howard Crabtree, a wildly imaginative costume designer, working with his creative partner, lyricist Mark Waldrop. Among the fantastic concoctions he dreamed up are vanity tables that suddenly transform into dresses; a mermaid costume with ceiling-height hair made of fishing nets, flotsam and jetsam; and a quartet of playing-card queens.

Keri Fitch, who led Crain and Jorge Hernandez in creating the costumes for "Pigs," said that while "there are some specific directions in the script - the chaps in the prologue have to be feathered, there have to be marching band uniforms in one scene - there's plenty of opportunity to be outrageous. You always have to work within a box, but in this case it's a really big box!

"Part of the fun of working on this show is that we could look back at images of costumes from Howard's original production and from the version that NCTC did in 2003, then try to come up with ways to push things even further."

Likewise, at Theatre Rhinoceros, those crazy gays can't leave well enough alone. Rudy Guerrero, who won a Best Actor award from the Bay Area Critics' Circle last year for playing Tick, the lead character in "Priscilla," hasn't been able to resist updating his wardrobe for his return engagement.

"It's really part of developing my character," he explained. "This is a working-class guy who is doing drag, so I try to put myself into his head and go searching for things to wear, or to make into outfits, at thrift shops. During rehearsals this year, I came in with a gold sequined gown that's in the show now."

And John F. Karr, the dresser who helps the "Priscilla" cast of 14 make their near-instant costume changes backstage, decided that this year, "We really couldn't do a show set in Australia without an Australian lifeguard.

"Besides," Karr joked, "what's a big gay musical without a Speedo?!"

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, through June 30, Gateway Theatre. www.therhino.org
When Pigs Fly, through June 10, New Conservatory Theatre Center. www.nctcsf.org.


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