The rivalries are ferocious in “Wig Out!,” the pulpy drama at Studio Theatre about drag performers in competing “houses.” The mighty Rey-Rey may be on her last legs as the reigning “mother” of the House of Light, while an outsider named Eric may be finding himself with a man named Wilson who goes by “Nina” when he dons heels and skirt.
Or maybe Eric is in over his head, overwhelmed by the intensely regulated underground scene and the gender fluidity.
“You’re not that kind of gay,” Nina wonders as they seem to be getting serious.
Movie audiences who know writer Tarell Alvin McCraney for this year’s pensive best-picture winner “Moonlight” will find him in a far more outgoing key in this 2008 play, which strides firmly (while wearing very high heels) into territory pioneered by the documentary “Paris Is Burning.” “Wig Out!” is overloaded with dialogue and confession and packed with theatrical flourishes, from the three “Fates” narrating the action and tearing across the narrow stage with club dance moves to the painful monologues that always begin with “My grandmother wore a wig.”
Kent Gash’s show upstairs at Studio aims to bring you ultra-close. The audience is divided into four small sections around a tiny stage sliced by two super-slim runways. You’re never more than four rows from the characters, whether they’re nude in bed (yes, there’s some of that), feuding in gangland-style showdowns or finally promenading in the disco-fueled, high-fashion competitive ball.
Acting such revealing material in such intimate quarters has to be a particular challenge. Gash’s cast is phenomenally sincere, though, even when McCraney’s writing grows purple with melodrama. The House of Light is run by Lucian, a stereotypical thug in a shiny silver suit, and as Lucian, Michael Kevin Darnall addresses his supposedly beloved “family” with slow, intimidating cross-examinations. Cliched menace is unavoidable, but the connection is certainly direct.
As Nina/Wilson, the supple Michael Rishawn is particularly vulnerable. Rishawn subtly toggles personas (the wig is a big deal, of course) as he deals with Jaysen Wright’s seemingly direct Eric. Both actors deftly handle the complicated romance, which of course is shaded by the dark sinister Lucian.
Over-the-top style is amply provided by the basketball-tall Edwin Brown III as a sassy House of Light member named Venus, and by Jamyl Dobson’s Rey-Rey, who is especially formidable taking the runway in a glamorous dress and with muscular arms driving Rey-Rey’s fierce, elegant dance. Their rivals in the House of Di’Abolique are appropriately baroque, with Frank Britton as a Madame Butterfly nightmare and Alex Mills as a face-studded minion.
At 2½ hours, “Wig Out!” is a drawn-out tempest — so many staredowns and showdowns! Like “Moonlight,” it’s about donning the hard shell needed to survive tough upbringings and harsh circumstances. Gash’s tough, often touching actors smartly pull the core truth out of McCraney’s heightened, earnest script: Sometimes the armor is a wig.
If you go Wig Out!
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Dates: Through Aug. 6.
Tickets: $45-$55....Read more