What's YOUR Drag Name? :: Russell Garrett, Jared Reinfeldt, and Rick Park Talk 'Georgia McBride'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday April 30, 2018

It's a story as American as a deep-dish apple pie garnished with edible glitter: A young Elvis impersonator named Casey, strapped for cash and with a wife and kid on the way, turns to drag to make ends meet.

Okay, I'm kidding, but drag as an art form has gained a new and widespread appreciation in recent years. Once strictly reserved for (slightly uncomfortable, and therefore funny) material, often about men who are compelled to don women's clothes for some urgent reason (to avoid the mob in "Some Like It Hot," or to find a way to spend time with his kids in spite of his skeptical ex wife in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), the mainstream idea of drag has matured from a meme about straight men in ludicrously unconvincing disguise to a living and vibrant form of artistic expression that challenges, and exaggerates, our notions of gender, gender expression, showmanship (showpersonship>?), and performance.

Which brings us back to Casey. He's familiar with drag, of a sort, from his Elvis impersonation, but it's still a daunting prospect for him when he's presented with the opportunity to make some money - and, not incidentally, expand his professional and personal horizons. In a neat bit of symmetry (or, perhaps, slightly skewed mirroring), Casey is mentored by "Miss Tracy," a wise and kindly soul who's seen it all and, we presume, done it all, too. Of course, Casey keeps the details of his new gig from his wife, Jo, which only amps up the anticipation for when she finds him out.

There's more, of course. Casey hasn't jumped onto the drag bandwagon because he wants to; the act has been brought in by the owner of the club where Casey works, who - like the young protagonist - is feeling financially pinched and hoping to attract some fresh revenue by mixing things up. And it's only when Miss Tracy's regular performing partner takes ill that Miss Tracy turns to Casey and coaxes him into giving drag a go. Of course, once he goes big hair, nails, and eyelashes, there's no going back. This straight boy is about to find out what all the fuss is about, and so is the audience.

The play, by Matthew Lopez, premiered in 2015 and has garnered raves from around the country. Now "The Legend of Georgia McBride" - Casey's drag name, derived from his mother's birthplace and the last name of the first girl he kissed - is lighting up the Greater Boston Stage Company through May 20. EDGE had to rush to catch up with director/choreographer Russell Garrett, star Jared Reinfeldt, who pays Casey, and longtime Boston stage fave Rick Park, who's playing Miss Tracy.

EDGE: Men in drag has long been a source of comedy, from "Tootsie" to "Mrs. Doubtfire" and now "Georgia McBride," but now there seems to be more of an appreciation for the artistry of drag. What do you suppose is behind the cultural moment now being enjoyed by plays like this, or by RuPaul and the drag performers her program showcases?

Russell Garrett: I feel that a lot of things in our culture have reached a new point of acceptance that may not have been present even a short time ago... same-sex marriage and transgender awareness to name two. As our society evolves (hopefully forward) the things that we didn't understand become less scary and much easier to accept as someone's "normal." And the more we see representation of those things, the more mainstream they become. Straight people have long enjoyed drag shows in clubs as the entertainment that it is but when you see someone like RuPaul, who is just so out there and fabulous and has built a whole career based on her drag persona, it isn't that large a leap to think that we wouldn't all enjoy a reality competition show where fabulous drag queens compete against each other.

Rick Park: I definitely think that "RuPaul's Drag Race" has become a cultural touchstone in our world and has brought drag into the mainstream. We can not only watch that show, but we can also watch YouTube for make up tutorials and web series and stuff. It lets you understand that drag really is an art form and that queens are often exceptional artists who just happen to work in make up and wigs.

EDGE: Jared, you've done Shakespeare, and the Bard was fond of plots that feature cross-dressing. With that in mind, how do you think about that question?

Jared Reinfeldt: I think you're right on target in delineating this procession from Drag as Comedy to Drag as Art. Shakespeare was well ahead of his time in writing characters who are compelled to cross-dress for a variety of reasons. Twelfth Night's Viola comes to mind in that her male presentation allows her a freedom of expression and vocation that would otherwise be unavailable to her. At some point, men doing drag became more of an easy punchline in blockbuster films and television. RuPaul deserves a lot of credit for helping to promote drag as an art form--we are amazed by and celebrating and laughing with those queens instead of at them. Furthermore, performers who embraced a more fluid presentation of sexuality and gender--David Bowie, Prince, Lady Gaga, etc.--have led modern audiences to become fascinated by high pageantry and ambiguous sexual/gender presentations.

EDGE: "The Legend of Georgia McBride" points something out that many people might not realize: Not all drag performers are necessarily gay. Do you have thoughts on how sexuality and artistry play off each other when it comes to drag?

Jared Reinfeldt: At its core, Drag is at least partly about exploring alternative ways to externally express the way someone feels. As Ru Paul said, "We are all born Naked and the rest is Drag." In many ways, isn't that true? When we decide what to wear or how we speak, we are curating how the rest of the world views us. Drag as an art form takes this to the next level, of course, but this still leaves a lot of room for drag performers who aren't necessarily gay men - Peppermint, a fierce drag queen and trans woman who competed on "Ru Paul's Drag Race," comes to mind.

EDGE: It's sort of brilliant that an Elvis impersonator should become a drag performer in this show. Elvis was so flamboyant and colorful, even kitschy - I wonder how no one ever made this connection before.

Jared Reinfeldt: Right?! Part of the disconnect stems from the fact that drag performers are stereotypically male-presenting persons performing as women and a typically female song catalog. But certainly, as a larger-than-life entertainer known for his flamboyant costumes and sometimes provocative performances, Elvis has a lot in common with the drag queens we enjoy today.

Russell Garrett: Well, I think that early-career Elvis was certainly colorful and exciting but the kitschy Elvis that we have in our minds, of sparkly jumpsuits, long sideburns, and sunglasses was a later, 1970s version that I think had a lot to do with extravagant performers in that era being more of a norm than not. Think Cher, Liberace, Elton John, David Bowie. We might look back on that now and think, "How kitschy all of them looked," but we accepted it then as their "drag," their exaggerated personas that was just a part of who they were at that time. Elvis impersonators of today are most definitely doing a version of "drag," so it really isn't too much of a leap to have an Elvis impersonator who lips-synchs to The King also find success as a drag queen.

Rick Park: Elvis knew how to play his crowd, how to get those girls screaming and the boys to copy his looks. He had that "it" factor, that stage presence. When he was on, he was on. And I think that is what drag is. You can put on the right outfit and the right make up, and bam -- you are ruling that room. The energy from the hair, the lashes, the shoes, the music -- they are transformative, and I think when you watch old clips of Elvis the music is what was transformative to him. He's a nice guy, and then the music starts and boom! He's a swivelled-hip banshee!

EDGE: How was it the case that you ended up getting involved in this production?

Russell Garrett: I have wanted to direct and/or choreograph at GBSC for quite some time... I've acted many times here on stage.... and the Artistic Director, Weylin Symes, originally asked me to choreograph the musical sequences and work on the "drag" moments of the show. I think this was, in part, based on my experience having played a woman in an Off-Broadway musical called "Pageant," and he knew I had experience with dancing in heels and moving men around dressed as women.

The original director set for our show was Tommy Derrah, and I was to collaborate with him. But Tommy passed away last year just as we were going to begin discussion of how we wanted to approach the show. The theatre eventually asked me to take over as director, which I was more than happy to do. By that time I had grown to love the material, and really wanted to do it.

Rick Park: [I got involved] the best way possible for an actor. I got a call from Weylin Symes of GBSC and he said that Tommy Derrah was directing this show and would I come and read. Of course I said yes, and I googled the characters to see who I might read for. I figured I was up for Eddie, the crotchey old owner of the club, but then they sent me sides and it was for Tracy! I went and read with lots of young men who were auditioning for Casey, the Elvis impersonator. I can remember reading with Jared and thinking, "He's funny in a different way than anyone else I have read with." Then, a day later, I got the part!

Jared Reinfeldt: I had originally been in touch with Greater Boston Stage Company about their production of "She Loves Me" - I was out of town during audition season, but that show is a favorite of mine and I was really hoping to be involved. Over the summer, they asked me to come in and read for "Casey" in "Georgia McBride." I'm kind of a theatre news/reviews freak, so I was already familiar with the show and really excited about the part. A few auditions and callbacks later, and I was thrilled to get the part!

EDGE: Jared, you've gone from "Fiddler on the Roof" at New Rep to "The Legend of Georgia McBride," and I wonder if you're discovering resonances and parallels from your vantage - on the inside - of these productions that might now be readily apparent to the audience?

Jared Reinfeldt: Certainly one of my favorite parts about being a part of productions like these is the direct way in which theater can humanize and personalize more abstract themes. Theatre has a vast power to build understanding for situations that may be far removed from one's own lived experience. This is important because we don't consume media in a vacuum - what you read, hear, or see in art has the opportunity to change the way you view and influence the world.

We're in the middle of a national discussion that includes debates on gender & sexuality ("Georgia McBride!") and immigration and persecution based on race, ethnicity, and religion ("Fiddler on the Roof"). I couldn't be more fulfilled to know that what audiences see on our stages may allow them to step outside of themselves and better empathize with the particular pains or joys that others are experiencing.

EDGE: You star as the play's protagonist, Casey. What can you tell us about him?

Jared Reinfeldt: Casey lives in Panama City, Florida. He is deeply in love with his life and his wife. He works at Cleo's Bar as an Elvis impersonator and performer. He is optimistic and impulsive and full-hearted and loyal. He feels a lot of pressure to avoid disappointing those he loves, and that leads him to be less than fully honest at some crucial moments. He certainly has some growing-up to do, and I think it's wonderful that we get to see him wrestle with what it means to balance his energy with his growing responsibilities.

EDGE: Rick, tell me a little about your take on Tracy.

Rick Park: Tracy is Drag with a capital D! She lives for it but has hit some hard times, which brings her to Cleo's in the [Florida] Panhandle. She's a mother hen who will help anyone she can who needs help, but don't let that fool you -- she rules with an iron glove! She's sort of the love child of Latrice Royale, Dawn Davenport and Barbara Bush. (Too soon?)

EDGE: You've been involved with Ryan Landry's drag-tastic productions in the past, Rick. Is there a little of that sort of energy going on with "Georgia McBride?"

Rick Park: Ryan Landry's show are an animal all unto themselves! There are similarities in that this play and Ryan's stuff are both chock full of energy and surprises, but I think Ryan's shows are more in your face, which plays so well at the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts. "Georgia McBride" is fast-paced, with crazy fast costume changes and things happening that folks may not have seen onstage before!

EDGE: Russell, being both the director and the choreographer must be exhausting. That said, it must also be terrific to integrate your direction overall with the specifics of your choreography. Have you had many chances to do both for a single production, as you're doing here?

Russell Garrett: Being both the director and choreographer is what I usually do when working on a musical, and I've done it many times over the years. Of course, "Georgia McBride" is not a musical, but it feels and plays like one much of the time. So my background works really well for this show.

Needing to do both jobs for this piece isn't nearly as exhausting as, for example, doing "Guys and Dolls" or "Chicago," shows that I've done which require extensive and multiple dance routines alongside the story and book scenes required. So I've really worked to flesh out the characters and story with the actors, because that is paramount. The musical moments are fun and necessary in the story, but they aren't the most important aspect.?

EDGE: I notice that when it comes to scenic design for this production, you have two highly regarded artists, Cristina Todesco and Jeff Adelberg, working in tandem. (Adelberg is also doing the lighting.) Are they in charge of different specific things - say, a nightclub environment versus a domestic environment, or on stage versus backstage?

Russell Garrett: Cristina and Jeff, are terrific to work with. I have collaborated with Jeff many times over the years as a director, but I have only had the pleasure thus far of working on Cristina's sets as an actor or enjoying from the audience. They both worked equally on the ideas of the set. I wouldn't say one had more to do with one environment than the other. We've all had many chats about the details of those environments, which are very telling... what might the young, married couple have in their shabby home? How do the drag queens change a basic work place into their dressing room? It's been a very collaborative process.

EDGE: Wardrobe is going to be very important for a production like this, and you're working with costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley, another top name in Boston theater. What has Gail got in store for us?

Russell Garrett: Gail Buckley has one of the most challenging jobs with this show. We have these colorful and flamboyant drag queens come into the lives of very ordinary, everyday people, so we needed a great contrast from the contemporary clothes to what the queens would wear both on and off stage. Two big things to accomplish are getting a basic "look" and theme for the drag persona of Georgia McBride, who begins by melding his love of Elvis with a country/rockabilly female counterpart. And another is establishing identifiable looks for the character of Miss Tracy, who's stage persona is built around iconic female performers from the 20th Century, so its important that when she comes on stage the way she looks (as well as the music we chose) should tell the audience immediately who she is.?

Jared Reinfeldt: I had not worked with Gail before, but she certainly whipped up some amazing drag moments for this show. There will be some capital-H-heels and quite the assortment of fabulous and varied looks.

Rick Park: Girl, she is decking us out! I don't want to give anything away, but trust me when I say that she is not holding back at all - I have 10 or 12 costumes, wig and boot changes and they have to all be done lickity split!

EDGE: What a great cast you're working with, Russell! Were you much involved with casting - did you have a chance to go out and get the people you thought would be right for different roles?

Russell Garrett: To be honest, I did not cast this show. As I mentioned, Tommy Derrah was originally set to direct it, and he cast the show last year before I became involved with it. I wanted to honor his casting when I took over and not alter it. But I didn't know three of the actors at all, and had only seen a couple of them on stage before. So, we arranged for them to come to the theatre a few months ago and read some of the scenes they had auditioned with so that I could get a sense of who they were and what they might bring to the table. I also, asked two of the actors playing drag queens to bring in a pop song and lip-synch and perform for me, which they did. That was a relief, because I wanted to make sure they would throw themselves into the process, which they did.?

EDGE: Rick, have you worked much with any of your fellow castmates?

Rick Park: I had only ever worked with Ed [Peed, who plays Eddie, the club owner] before, and I love him. I had seen Jade [Guerra, playing Jo] and Alex [Pollock, playing Rexy, Miss Tracy's usual stage partner] in a couple of shows, and they are a blast -- I could tell you stories about Alex.

I do most of my scenes with Jared Reinfeldt [who plays Casey], who is amazing. He's only 24 years old, but what a talent! We have to get very close physically during the show, but it has never gotten weird - he is a real professional with a great sense of humor and warmth. That doesn't mean I don't read him to filth every night offstage, but he can take it. He's stunning both in and out of drag; he's right up there with Scott Martino and Aphrodite. And he is killing this role!

Jared Reinfeldt: I actually hadn't worked with any of my cast mates before this production. I met Alex and Rick back in callbacks and took a liking to them instantly. I had really enjoyed Alex's work in an ASP show last season, so it was great to read with him and get a feel for a (quite) different side of him. Rick and I were asked to do Casey's drag transformation scene in callbacks and found an instant trust and respect there - important when he's leading me around stage, applying my makeup, and changing my clothes! I met Ed and Jade closer to the start of rehearsals and have fallen in love with them as well. Ed just cracks me up, onstage and off. Jade is so open-hearted and joyful and wonderful to work with.

EDGE: How about Russell? Have you worked with him previously?

Rick Park: I had never worked with Russell - just knew him socially - but he is a joy to work with. Because he is also an actor, he is very sensitive to actor's needs and really listens to us. He lets us try anything, and trust me, I have tried a lot of shit to see if it is funny. I am sure Tommy is looking down proudly on all of us.

EDGE: At the same time as there's so much more appreciation for drag artistry, there's also a retrograde spin happening in politics and, to an extent, society. What does "The Legend of Georgia McBride" have to say to us in today's environment?

Jared Reinfeldt: It's about being open to understanding and loving those with different lived experiences. Who can say why a person chooses to present themselves in one way or another? But as long as they're not hurting anyone, who are we to say how people should or should not express themselves?

Rick Park: Drag is an escape for the queens who do it. And it allows the people watching to also have an escape. In Georgia McBride, we see characters tell us why they do drag, what it means, why it is vital. Yes, drag is about illusion, but sometimes, you just need something that you can believe is real so you can get away from the shit happening in the world. When you watch drag, you don't see a man in a dress; you see a mirage in feathers and hairspray that lets you relax and think, just for a few minutes, not about the crap in life, but about what is beautiful: Music, color, grace, energy. Love.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" continues through May 20 at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.greaterbostonstage.org/the-legend-of-georgia-mcbride.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.