Former male stripper Jerome Gagnon is the cover boy of the June 2013 issue of Fugues magazine, French Canada’s gay glossy. But Gagnon is used to all the attention — during his stripper days all eyes were on him, on and off the stage.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable with attention,” Gagnon says frankly, “but the first time I stripped – coming from a deeply religious Catholic background – after my performance, when I walked offstage, I cried. But I was rebelling against my family and my background. So it got easier, and a day or two later I was fine.”
Gagnon portrays teenaged stripper Santo$ in Montreal playwright Puelo Deir’s new musical drama Holy Tranity! — which is poised to become the underground hit of the 2013 Montreal Fringe Festival.
The play follows 17-year-old naive runaway Jude (aka Santo$) as he explores his sexuality in 1980s Montreal, when gay men were dying from a mysterious disease. Guilt-laden by his staunch Catholic upbringing and utterly rejected by his close-knit family, flat broke and dreaming of stardom, Jude auditions to be a stripper at the tawdry and near-bankrupt Rainbow Lounge, run by Ms Gracie, a transgender queen and the club’s star attraction. But Jude grows dependent on a self-destructive cocktail of drugs and anonymous sex. Will the unconditional love of Michael – an ex-military mechanic (played by Simon Therrien) who turns AIDS activist – or the motherly caring of Gracie save him?
The musical drama is directed by David di Giovanni and features Gagnon stripping in many X-rated numbers, as well as Antonio Bavaro (aka Alberta native and Montreal drag legend-in-the-making Connie Lingua) as trans woman Gracie singing some diva standards, including Judy Garland’s “Get Happy.”
Playwright and Hollywood publicist Deir also co-founded Montreal’s famed Divers/Cité Festival in 1993, years after he escaped Ottawa for the bright lights of the big city.
“I ran away from home at 14, I stripped, I was a rent boy, so I identify a lot with the character of Santo$,” Deir says. “But there’s a lot of me in Michael and Gracie as well – they were the kind of people who raised me in real life when I was a teenager in Montreal. They took on parental roles in my life.”
The play will be presented at Montreal’s historic Café Cleopatra on The Main. Cleopatra’s has been a showbar since 1893 and, Deir says, “It was there that I met the trans and drags who took me under their wing. It seemed so appropriate that the first real mounting of the play should happen at Cleopatra’s, the last vestige of Montreal’s red-light district.”
Deir’s play had its first public reading at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, where Bavaro wowed local theatre critics with his portrayal of Gracie. But this 2013 version is its first full production, and Deir has plans to take it well beyond the Montreal Fringe.
“This play is a few years in the making, after our [critically acclaimed] reading at the Toronto Fringe,” Bavaro says. “The rehearsals so far have been magic and have generated good buzz and energy. It’s funny and campy and sexy and runs the gamut of emotions. I really identify with the issues raised in this play: trans and gender issues, what is gay and what is queer, and of course AIDS, HIV and bar life, things that are still very present today. This is not just another historical gay play about the '80s.”
Deir is delighted with his talented cast. “I’m surrounded by so many talented young people, and we’ve all grown so much since our readings at the Toronto Fringe. These kids have a totally different perspective of [the play’s] time period than I do, and the energy they bring to the play has really helped get this project off the ground.”
Meanwhile, Bavaro says, “Gracie is a goddess to me, and I’m very honoured to be playing her.”
As for Gagnon, he says, “I think I was made for this role. We’re all having a lot of fun, and I’m really excited for opening day.”
Part of the Montreal Fringe Festival
Tues, June 18-Sun, June 23
Montreal’s Café Cléopatra
1230 Saint-Laurent, in the 2nd-floor showbar