“We had a great view of the riots,” David Blue boasts. He’s giving me a quick tour of his gem-toned hair salon perched high above Granville St in the iconic Vancouver Block. His salon is being transformed into a rehearsal space for Raving Theatre’s Confessions of a Mad Drag Queen, the less-than-reliably narrated story of retired diva and ex-con Miranda Rights.
Blue has invited me to watch. And he’s not just the host — he’s also playwright, producer and artistic director of Raving Theatre. Not to mention makeup artist-in-residence.
“Put a thicker line on top,” he instructs Jeffrey Flieler, who’s playing the titular queen.
Flieler is happy for the instruction. Late-night party tricks notwithstanding, this is his first professional drag role, and its practical demands are daunting.
The company’s website invites us to enjoy an evening of “mascara, madness and murder,” and convincingly mastering that mascara is proving to be a struggle tonight.
Flieler’s Miranda spends much of the first scene applying her makeup in full view of the audience. The challenge is to do this with the conviction of a seasoned (make that well-seasoned) drag queen, all the while maintaining a monologue that teeters on a knife-edge between lascivious charm and bat-shit crazy.
But he’s certainly not worried about the shoes. When he slaps on a strappy silver pair with six-inch stacked heels, any hesitation he might have shown with eyeliner is forgotten. Flieler struts about the room in statuesque and practised glory. He’s done this before.
“It all started when I bought my first pair of pumps for vacuuming — it turned an everyday, tedious task into merriment!”
“It feels like the role was written for Jeff,” says director Neil Scott, clearly pleased with the casting. “It’s brought to life because the guys have such strong handles on their roles. And they’re delicious roles.”
The other delicious role is that of the young biographer John Morgan, played by Rob Monk. Morgan is collaborating with Miranda on her tell-all, soon-to-be-published life story. In the classic confessional setup, Miranda paints the backstory in broad (and more-than-a-little embellished) strokes. Flieler embraces the task, managing to chew up the scenery with élan while simultaneously applying raspberry-hued eye shadow. I think this qualifies as doing his own stunts.
Meanwhile, Monk’s John Morgan quietly observes. He asks a few pointed questions about the people in the framed photos strewn around the cramped room while deflecting a storm of unsubtle advances from his hostess. But he never seems completely convinced by her answers. Or threatened by her carnivorous flirting.
So while Flieler’s dervish spins out an elaborate and increasingly colourful tale, Monk remains the enigma at the other end of the button-tufted settee.
It’s not surprising that after 20 minutes the play feels like it’s all Flieler’s. “Miranda came first,” Blue explains. She was a “crazy-ass, psycho drag queen trapped in a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford movie.”
The earliest drafts found Miranda alone in a chiffon-festooned prison cell circuitously explaining how she ended up there. “John didn’t show up till draft 12,” Blue reveals.
I’m glad he showed up. As Flieler’s performance ramps up and he begins to embrace the lunatic rhythms of his character, I’m relieved there’s someone else here to act as a buffer. As Miranda’s mental health becomes increasingly stormy, I’m beginning to feel like an Alabama trailer park caught in her path. I’m trusting Monk’s cool-headed Morgan to let me know if I need to head to the cellar.
“Who’s this in the picture?” he asks, lifting another frame.
“Shit!” hisses Miranda from her makeup table, and I expect to see her lunge across the room with a shiv she’s had tucked in her turban. But it’s an unscripted outburst. Flieler has succumbed to giddy frustration with the cellophane wrapper on an eyebrow pencil, unsuccessfully tearing at it with his teeth.
Clearly, the actor has already convinced me of his skill with madness and murder. It’s the damn mascara that might be his undoing!