Alain Platel of Belgium’s famed Les ballets C de la B (Les ballets contemporains de la Belgique) is deliriously happy with the reception of his smash new European stage musical Gardenia. It’s about six middle-aged and elderly crossdressing men, and it makes its much-anticipated North American debut at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques on June 1.
“All kinds of people everywhere have fallen head over heels for Gardenia, even fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who was so crazy about the performers that he came to see them three or four times,” Platel says. “He even made special gifts for each of the performers.”
Platel is a self-taught choreographer and the co-director (with renowned Belgian scriptwriter Frank Van Laecke) of Gardenia, the critically hailed musical inspired by Yo Say Asi, a Spanish documentary film about the real-life closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona. Gardenia also tells the true-life story of six aging transvestites, who have spent their double-lives working as civil servants, nurses and office clerks. They dress in drag one last time after a faded transsexual announces the closing of the Gardenia cabaret. So what we witness onstage is essentially a meditation on age and beauty, as real-life gussied-up queens dance to the music of Aznavour, Dalida and Ravel.
Belgian transsexual Vanessa Van Durme proposed the original story idea.
“We had wanted to incorporate her story in one of our productions 10 years earlier, but it didn’t work out,” says Platel. “So Vanessa came back and asked us if we wanted to make a play about her days working in [transvestite] cabarets in Antwerp. She also suggested we screen Yo Say Asi, which inspired our similar story. So Gardenia is not a work of fiction. It is based on Vanessa’s friends from 30 and 40 years ago who are played by actors who [also personally knew] the scene themselves.”
While Gardenia is rooted in the past, it is also resoundingly popular with young audiences.
“Our performers are between 57 and 68 years old, and the period in which they were young – in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – you just cannot compare to what we’re living [through] now, how gay people and transvestites are celebrated today. There are still some societal problems [about accepting gay and drag culture] today, but it was much, much harder to live your life openly and honestly 50 years ago.”
Cross-dressing has played a huge role in the social history of theatre, notably in Shakespearean plays. Indeed, in Elizabethan theatre, female parts were played by young men in drag. By the late 20th century, drag conventions were changing radically, with the theatrical drag queen presented not as a female impersonator but as a drag queen. However, the mainstreaming of drag culture has dulled drag’s cutting edge, as evidenced by the Walt Disney-esque success of La Cage aux Folles and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical on Broadway.
Which is why Gardenia, while melancholic, is such a breath of fresh air.
“Frank and I decided we just couldn’t have a show with men dressed in drag for 90 minutes, so we first asked the cast to dress as men,” Platel explains. “That gave us something to build on, and it’s really the secret of the performance. It lets the audience connect with the characters as people first, then we see them as performers.”
The company has performed Gardenia more than 120 times to rave reviews across Europe since its premiere in Ghent, Belgium, in June 2010. And while it is performed in French, it crosses cultural and linguistic lines.
“Of course Gardenia is not just about age and beauty, but also about how you decide to live your life and whether it is right for you,” Platel says. “There is a lot of melancholy in this play, for sure, but there is also much joy and celebration. Personally, I watch our cast – many of whom had no theatre experience before this play – and here they are touring the world. They are not retired, sitting at home knitting; they are touring the world. It’s very rewarding to witness their joy.”